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Hong Kong police slip on banana peel with tear gas tweet

HONG KONG – Hong Kong's much-maligned police force has slipped on a banana peel by trying to make light of its liberal use of tear gas during the territory's protest movement.

Mimicking an artist who duct-taped a banana to a wall, the force tweeted a photo of a canister similarly taped, with the words: “Say NO to violence. Let’s leave the tear gas cartridge on the wall forever.”

“For a Police officer, using force, including tear gas, is always the last resort. If rioters don’t use violence, Hong Kong will be safe and there’s no reason for us to use force,” the post on its Twitter account said.

Respondents to the post called it crass. Some, in turn, posted videos of Hong Kong police officers' use of gas and other riot control measures, which protesters say have been excessively violent.

The police force has fired nearly 16,000 tear gas rounds and made more than 6,000 arrests during the six months of pro-democracy demonstrations that have at times been marked by violent clashes and vandalism of government buildings, transit hubs and commercial spaces.

The protesters' demands include an independent investigation of police actions, amnesty for protesters who have been arrested and retraction of the description of protesters as “rioters.” They say the label characterizes peaceful demonstrators as criminals who could face long imprisonments.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has refused to meet those demands, saying an internal police investigation is sufficient and that dropping criminal cases against the protesters would not follow the rule of law.

The police watchdog agency that is investigating suffered a blow this week when foreign experts it recruited to bolster the credibility of its work quit, saying its probe lacked the powers and tools it needs.

The police force's make-light tweet about tear gas initially included a “Bananaart” hashtag, but that was then deleted. The force then reposted its tweet without it.

The hashtag referred to a talked-about artwork from artist Maurizio Cattelan that stole the show at Art Basel Miami. Titled “Comedian,” it was a spotty banana duct-taped to a wall.

Despite online incredulity, the police force stuck by its tweet.

“Police respect the public’s freedoms of expression and welcome public’s feedback for further constructive discussion," it said in response to an Associated Press question about the reaction.

Policing the protests has stretched the force's resources. The government said in a briefing paper for a legislative meeting Friday that the bill for police overtime from June, when the mass demonstrations began, to November was about 950 million Hong Kong dollars (US$122 million).

“More than 900 protests, processions and public meetings have been staged in Hong Kong, many of which eventually turned into illegal acts of violence,” the government note said. “During the ongoing conflicts in the past few months, front-line police officers had to handle massive and unlawful violent acts in various districts on the one hand, and to maintain regular police duties and public services in the territory on the other.”

Courts are being kept busy, too. A 13-year-old girl was sentenced Friday to one year of probation for burning China's flag at a protest in September, her lawyer, Douglas Kwok, said. The court also sentenced to her an overnight curfew between the hours of 7 p.m. to 7:30 a.m., he said.