July 15 (UPI) -- Hong Kong's embattled leader, Carrie Lam, on Monday condemned the protesters who clashed with police Sunday night inside an upscale shopping mall as "rioters" while defending the actions of law enforcement.
"Police were very professional and restrained but were deliberately attacked by rioters," she said at a hospital where she visited police officers injured in Sunday's violence. "I think we can really describe them as rioters," South China Morning Post reported.
On Sunday, tens of thousands of protesters attended a peaceful demonstration march in Hong Kong's northern town of Sha Tin demanding a shelved controversial extradition bill be withdrawn. The demonstration turned violent as a small group of protesters clashed with riot police in a mall later that night.
Twenty-eight people were hospitalized, including 13 police officers, one of whom had his finger reattached after it was bitten by a protester. Six people remained hospitalized on Monday, at least one of whom was in critical condition.
Police said at least 40 people were arrested on suspicion of unlawful assembly and assaulting police, the Hong Kong Free Press reported.
Police Commissioner Stephen Lo defended his decision to deploy riot police to the New Town Plaza, saying they were necessary as the protesters were violent.
"The thugs acted like they had lost their sense," he said. "When an officer fell down, they continued to kick and beat him. Our colleagues face a lot of pressure and our efforts have only been met with blame from many sides."
On Monday, pro-democracy lawmakers issued a statement condemning the police for "deliberately provoking" the conflict and stating that their attempt to clear the mall was unlawful, as they entered private property without permission.
"We strongly condemn the actions by the police, which disrupt social harmony, and demand that the commissioner of police publicly explain and discipline the relevant commanders and officers and apologize to affected businesses and members of the public," the 24 lawmakers said in the joint statement.
But Lo countered, asking if police supposed to watch as the law is being broken.
"The police were working very hard, but their diligence has only been greeted with accusations," he said, The New York Times reported.
Lam's description of protesters as "rioters" comes as protesters have been demanding for a public retraction of being given that label following a June 12 protest.
Despite Lam having said the bill -- which that would permit certain fugitives to be extradited to the Chinese mainland to face Beijing-controlled courts -- "is dead," protests persist demanding her resignation, an official withdrawal of the bill, an investigation into police brutality and the "rioters" description retracted.
The Civil Human Rights Front protest organization said Lam was to blame for the recent violence and if the government cared about protecting the police, their demands would be heeded.
"If the government really wants to protect frontline officers and does not want to see more civilians hurt in protest activities, then it should respond to the public's demands more proactively," it said in a statement.