By Tyrone Siu and Jessie Pang
HONG KONG (Reuters) – A group of protesters set alight the lobby of a newly built residential building in Hong Kong on Sunday that authorities planned to use as a quarantine facility for the coronavirus outbreak.
A Reuters witness saw several masked protesters, clad in black, rush into the public housing block in the Fanling district near to the border with China, and set alight a Molotov cocktail before running out. Black smoke could be seen pouring out of the building to the sound of fire alarms. Windows were smashed.
The fire was later put out by firefighters and the damage appeared to be confined to the lobby area. Hundreds of riot police also moved in, arresting at least one person.
As fears about the virus outbreak intensify, calls have grown for the Hong Kong government to block the financial hub’s border with mainland China to minimize the risk of infection.
Earlier in the afternoon, hundreds of regular Hong Kong citizens had blocked roads leading to the building with bricks and other debris, to protest plans to convert the building into a quarantine zone as the number of confirmed cases in the city climbed to six.
“We are dissatisfied with the government selecting this housing estate as a (quarantine) separation village as it’s very close to a residential area and a primary school,” said a 28-year-old resident surnamed Tsang.
Hong Kong has been convulsed with protests over the last seven months centered on Hong Kong’s relationship with mainland China: with some protesters railing against what they see as growing interference from Beijing. Beijing denies meddling and blames the West for stirring trouble in the former British colony.
The outbreak of the coronavirus from the Chinese city of Wuhan has piled further pressure on embattled Hong Kong authorities, who have so far refused to categorically block the flow of visitors from mainland China across several land border crossings. Direct train and flight connections to and from Wuhan have, however, been suspended.
Hong Kong authorities had earlier said they would convert “Fai Ming Estate, an unoccupied public estate in Fanling, into temporary flats for quarantine and observation of close contact persons without symptoms if needed.”
But after the protest, the government said in a statement it would “cease the related preparation work in Fai Ming Estate.”
Health authorities in the afternoon said 107 people were now under quarantine, and there were 77 suspected cases.
The ability of the new coronavirus to spread is strengthening and infections could continue to rise, China’s National Health Commission said on Sunday, with nearly 2,000 people in China infected and 56 killed by the disease.
(Additional reporting by Felix Tam and Aleksander Solum in Hong Kong; Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Toby Chopra)