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Protesters amid tear gas fired by police during clashes in Hong Kong, on July 27, 2019.LAM YIK FEI/The New York Times News Service

Canada is advising anyone planning to travel to Hong Kong to exercise a high degree of caution, citing demonstrations and potential violence in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.

Increasing violent incidents stemming from mass demonstrations in Hong Kong have already prompted Australia and the United States to make similar recommendations this week.

“Clashes between security forces and demonstrators have taken place,” reads Canada’s travel advisory, updated Thursday afternoon. “Police have often reacted more swiftly and severely to unauthorized protests. There have also been random attacks on demonstrators by their opponents.”

The statement also says demonstrations could take place with little or no notice and they can quickly spread to surrounding areas, including those frequented by tourists.

The protests were sparked two months ago by proposed extradition legislation that could have seen suspects sent to mainland China, where critics say they could face torture and unfair trials.

But the demonstrations have since morphed into calls for broader democratic reforms in the former British colony, along with the resignation of Chief Executive Carrie Lam and investigations into alleged police abuse of force.

Hong Kong police say 589 people have been arrested in the protests since June 9, ranging in age from 13 to 76. They face charges including rioting, which allows for prison terms of up to 10 years.

Senior security officials in the region told Reuters on Thursday the police commander who oversaw pro-democracy demonstrations that roiled Hong Kong in 2014 has been recalled from retirement to help deal with the protests. Former deputy police commissioner Alan Lau Yip-shing planned to meet top-level ground commanders on Friday.

On Wednesday, the head of Beijing’s cabinet office responsible for the territory said Hong Kong was facing its “most severe situation” since its handover from British rule in 1997 and the central government was considering further measures.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson on Thursday called China a “thuggish regime” for disclosing the photographs and personal details of a U.S. diplomat who met with student leaders of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

Even before the federal government issued its caution, some Canadians who’ve been planning to travel to Hong Kong have had a second thoughts because of the worsening situation in the territory.

“The street scenes in Hong Kong were terrible. There were confrontations everywhere,” said Bill Chu, who has abandoned the idea of travelling to Hong Kong to visit his family after seeing media coverage of the protests.

He said he decided not to travel after watching news about a general strike in the city that caused traffic disruption and airport chaos, and after seeing a map that showed protests happening in several districts across the special administrative region.

“At this point, I would not advise people to go to Hong Kong,” he said. “The rule of law seems to be absent and the police are not reliable any more.”

Markham, Ont., resident Mimi Lee had been organizing a group of Hong Kong Canadians to push Ottawa to issue a travel advisory. She said the federal government’s response Thursday was too slow.

Ms. Lee, who has family in Hong Kong, said travellers to the territory can’t rely on police to keep them safe. Hong Kong police have been accused of negligence after a mob targeted demonstrators that injured more than 40 people last month, and been criticized for firing tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters.

“How are you going to be able to find help if anything happens if you cannot trust the police? Isn’t it a big issue there?” said Ms. Lee, who has organized several campaigns to support demonstrations in Hong Kong.

The territory’s crucial travel industry has suffered as tourists put off their visits, with Ireland, Britain and Japan having also issued similar travel advisories to their citizens.

The central government in Beijing so far has not overtly intervened in the situation. However, in editorials and public remarks, it has condemned demonstrators and protest organizers as criminals, clowns and “violent radicals” and alleged that they have been inflamed by politicians from the U.S., Taiwan and elsewhere.

Hong Kong was returned to China under the framework of “one country, two systems,” which promised the city political, civil and economic freedoms not allowed under Communist Party rule on the mainland. However, many Hong Kong residents feel Beijing has been increasingly encroaching on their freedoms.

Pro-democracy protesters said Thursday they plan to hold a demonstration at Hong Kong’s international airport over the weekend, along with marches elsewhere in the territory.

With reports from Associated Press and Reuters

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