HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong officials apologized to Muslim leaders Monday after riot police sprayed a mosque and bystanders with a water cannon while trying to contain turbulent pro-democracy demonstrations in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.
The city’s leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, and the police chief visited the Kowloon Mosque to apologize to the chief imam and Muslim community leaders.
Officials were scrambling to minimize the fallout from the incident at one of the city’s most well-known religious sites.
The government said in a statement that Lam “extended an apology for the inadvertent spraying.” Authorities called it an accident, but a bystander’s account disputed that.
Muslim leaders told reporters they accepted the apology.
“Our mosque is not damaged, nothing is done wrong. Only thing is that they should have not done it. For that they apologized so we accept it,” said Saeed Uddin, honorary secretary of the Islamic Community Fund of Hong Kong.
Police also apologized later at a daily press briefing and said they had been contacting Muslim community leaders across the city.
“To any people or any groups that were affected, we offer our genuine apologies,” said Cheuk Hau-yip, the Kowloon West regional commander. “We certainly do not have any malicious intent.
It was a rare case of authorities apologizing for how they’ve handled the protest movement, which erupted in early June and expanded to include demands for police accountability and political reforms. Protesters seized on it as the latest example of what they call unnecessarily harsh police tactics
During Sunday’s protest, a police water cannon truck that was passing by the mosque sprayed a stinging blue-dyed liquid at a handful of people standing in front of the mosque’s gate, according to video of the incident by pro-democracy lawmaker Jeremy Tam.
The mosque’s front steps, metal gate and sidewalk outside were stained with the blue liquid while people caught in the plume were left gagging, coughing and trying to rinse the solution from their eyes, the video shows.
Volunteers later arrived to help clean up the mosque, and by Monday morning the blue coating was largely gone.
Hong Kong is home to more than 300,000 Muslims, according to the Islamic Community Fund, which runs the city’s five mosques and two Muslim cemeteries. They first arrived in the 19th century after being recruited in India by British colonizers.
Tam said on his Facebook page that he and two others went to the hospital to check for injuries.
One of those people, Mohan Chugani, a businessman and former president of Hong Kong’s Indian Association, said he was passing by the mosque and stopped to chat with someone when he was hit by the cannon.
Chugani, who is not Muslim, said there were no protesters around when the water cannon and an armored car rolled up, so he thought nothing of it. Then he noticed a periscope on the cannon focusing on him.
Before he knew it, the cannon fired.
“I was shocked,” said Chugani, 73. It fired again.
“The second round became much more powerful. I couldn’t open my eyes, and it was like my whole body was on fire,” he said.
Chugani, whose left eye remained swollen shut, said Hong Kong officials reached out to apologize.
“I accept the chief executive’s apology in principle, but apologizing to me alone does not solve this whole matter,” he said. “The police have got out of hand and they seem not to be answerable to anybody.”
Police used the water cannon along with tear gas and pepper spray to battle protesters who remained on the streets after the end of an unauthorized rally, vandalizing and setting fire to shops with ties to mainland China. They were rallying to call for broader political rights and police accountability. It was the latest turmoil to grip Hong Kong, which has been wracked by unrest since early June, spurred by concerns that Chinese communist leaders are tightening their hold on the former British colony.
Police said they arrested 68 people over the weekend. They called the protesters “rioters,” and said they hurled more than 100 firebombs and damaged more than 100 sets of traffic lights.
Organizers were planning a Monday evening sit-in at a suburban train station on the three-month anniversary of a violent attack there on protesters by men with suspected organized crime ties.
Hong Kong’s subway operator closed the station by early afternoon in an apparent bid to foil the protesters, who have trashed and torched subway facilities in anger at the operator’s support for the authorities.