Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has rejected China’s claim that mass protests in Hong Kong are showing “sprouts of terrorism” and called for a peaceful resolution to the 10-week stand-off.
Thousands of travellers remain stuck in the Chinese territory after anti-government protesters forced the closure of its busy international airport on Monday.
The airport has since reopened but its administrator has warned of ongoing delays as passengers, including Australians, wait to get out.
At a press conference this afternoon, a Hong Kong police spokesman would not rule out using tear gas at the airport, where thousands of protesters have gathered and flights have been cancelled ahead of a potential clearance operation: https://t.co/Knw7iJE1TV pic.twitter.com/C4x59UYeUX
— CNN International (@cnni) August 12, 2019
Qantas had cancelled four flights in and four out by early Tuesday but hoped three would be able to leave the territory on Tuesday night with affected customers offered the option of re-booking.
Virgin Australia passengers on two flights out of Hong Kong on Monday night endured a 14-hour delay.
One left for Sydney on Tuesday morning while one to Melbourne was due to take off about 1 p.m. Australian time.
“For the rest of our flights it’s business as usual,” a spokeswoman said.
Morrison described the situation in Hong Kong as “very, very serious” and urged its political leaders to de-escalate the situation and listen “carefully to what people are saying.”
There are mounting fears China may be about to ramp up its response to ongoing mass rallies.
Beijing has accused protesters of “serious crimes with sprouts of terrorism emerging” and says the situation amounts to an “existential threat.”
“One must take resolute action toward this violent criminality, showing no leniency or mercy,” Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office spokesman Yang Guang said from Beijing.
Some legal experts have warned the use of the term ‘terrorism’ could see extensive anti-terror powers invoked.
Morrison has stopped short of telling Australians not to travel to Hong Kong but rejected China’s characterisation of the protests as nascent terrorism.
“That’s certainly not the rhetoric that I would certainly use to describe those events,” he said in Sydney.
“Of course we’re concerned, particularly because of the number of Australians, residents and citizens in Hong Kong both on a long-term basis and on a short-term basis.”
There are reports China’s People’s Armed Police, which is used to deal with riots and terror attacks, have assembled for exercises in Shenzhen, which links Hong Kong to China’s mainland.
Malcolm Jones was returning to Melbourne from Vietnam via Hong Kong when he and his wife got caught up in the chaos.
They went to the Qantas lounge, listening to the protest action playing out around them, but were soon told all flights had been cancelled until further notice.
Jones expressed support for the protesters, telling the ABC: “Hong Kong citizens are really protesting about what is going on in their country … and we all have empathy for that.”
— Jon Williams (@WilliamsJon) August 12, 2019
Queenslander Leoni McDermot told the ABC she and her daughter felt unsafe while trapped in the terminal.
“If it was riotous enough to shut down an entire airport, I can’t see how it’s safe for us to walk outside the front door without any transport or a hotel to stay in.”
They were eventually driven to a hotel to wait for a flight home.
— Erin Watson-Lynn (@erinwatsonlynn) August 12, 2019
The Australian government’s Smartraveller website continues to warn people to exercise a high degree of caution.