'Total breakdown': Scary moment giant Christmas tree set on fire in luxury mall

A giant Christmas tree inside a luxury shopping mall in Hong Kong has gone up in flames as unrest involving anti-government protestors escalated for a third day in a row this week.

Protesters paralysed parts of the Asian financial hub with transport links, schools and many businesses closing as police warned of a rise in violence to deadly levels.

Alarming pictures emerged from Festival Walk mall in Kowloon Tong on Tuesday showing staff frantically trying to extinguish the burning tree as the inferno rose several floors inside the shopping centre.

An employee tries to extinguish the huge fire. Source: Reuters
Another staff member rushes to grab a hose to battle the flames. Source: Reuters

Masked protesters could be seen smashing glass railings as they took over the mall.

About 1000 protesters blocked roads in the heart of the city's Central business district at lunchtime on Wednesday.

Wearing now-banned face masks and dressed in office wear, they marched and hurled bricks onto roads lined with some of the world's most expensive real estate and luxury flagship stores.

"It's now 1989 4th June" was scrawled on the windows of fashion store Georgio Armani, a reference to the crackdown by Chinese troops on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

One protester smashes a glass railing. Source: Reuters
The fire can be seen getting bigger. Source: Reuters

City pushed to the ‘brink of a total breakdown’

Scores of riot police tried to disperse the crowds near the stock exchange, wrestling some people to the ground and beating others with batons.

Protesters and police had battled through Tuesday night at university campuses only hours after a senior police officer said the Chinese-ruled city had been pushed to the "brink of a total breakdown".

Protesters are angry about what they see as police brutality and meddling by Beijing in the freedoms guaranteed under the "one country, two systems" formula put in place when the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

China denies interfering and has blamed Western countries, including Britain and the United States, for stirring up trouble.

Many campuses remained tense on Wednesday with students setting up barricades. Some perched on bridges to keep guard while others checked people coming in.

People walk by an intersection scattered with bricks and barricades set by pro-democracy protesters outside the Hong Kong Baptist University on Wednesday. Source: AP

Rows of riot police, some in trucks, watched the students but did not try to break through. The protests typically get more violent as night falls.

Hong Kong's Education Bureau said all schools would shut on Thursday. Several universities said they would be introducing online learning and other assessment methods for the remaining weeks of the term.

On Tuesday, there were chaotic scenes through the night at the prestigious Chinese University, with explosions, plumes of smoke, yelling and sustained firing of tear gas and rubber bullets during which scores were injured.

Elsewhere, activists blocked roads, torched several vehicles, hurled petrol bombs at a police station and smashed part of a major shopping mall.

A protester is detained in Central district of Hong Kong on Monday. Source: AP

Man set on fire in stand off

The flare-ups came after police shot a protester at close range on Monday and police said "rioters" doused a man with petrol and set him on fire in some of the worst violence since protests picked up in June. 

"Rioters' violence reached a very dangerous and even deadly level," senior police office Tse Chun-chung told a media briefing.

He said some university campuses were being used to make petrol bombs and to shelter "rioters and criminals".

"Nowhere in Hong Kong is a lawless land."

The turmoil caused delays for thousands of commuters who queued at metro stations across the city early on Wednesday after some railway services were suspended and roads closed.

Police said 142 people had been arrested since Tuesday, bringing the total number of arrests to more than 4000.

With AAP

Do you have a story tip? Email: newsroomau@yahoonews.com.

You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter, download the Yahoo News app from the App Store or Google Play and stay up to date with the latest news with Yahoo’s daily newsletter. Sign up here.