Nine men have been arrested in connection with the brutal attack on a veteran Hong Kong journalist that sparked concerns for press freedom in the Chinese city, police said Wednesday.
Kevin Lau, a former editor of the liberal Ming Pao newspaper, was hacked with a cleaver in broad daylight last month by two men who then escaped on a motorbike.
Hong Kong police commissioner Andy Tsang said two triad-connected suspects were arrested on the Chinese mainland, while seven "accomplices" were arrested by his force in several locations across the territory.
"We have been informed (that) two had been arrested in Guangdong (province)... by the mainland authorities," Tsang told reporters, adding that some of the seven arrested by Hong Kong police were also connected to triads.
Lau remains in hospital following the assault on February 26 in which he was struck six times on the back and legs with a cleaver, leaving wounds including a 16-centimetre-long (six-inch) gash.
The attack came just weeks after Lau was removed from his position at the helm of radical Ming Pao and replaced with an editor deemed to be pro-Beijing.
The ouster triggered protests over media freedom with mounting concerns that Beijing was seeking to tighten control over the semi-autonomous region.
Tsang said Wednesday that a motive had yet to be established and that no link had so far been made between Lau's journalism and the attack.
He added that they would not rule out any motive but said he said he believed that whoever committed the crime may have been hired.
In a statement Lau said he was grateful for police efforts to apprehend the culprits, but insisted he believed the vicious attack was due to his profession.
- 'Assault is related to my job' -
He said: "Before the truth is revealed, it is bewildering for the Commissioner of Police to have said that there had been no direct evidence to suggest that the assault was related to any journalistic work. I hope the police can come up with a swift clarification.
"I have already signed and verified my testimony to the police, in which I stated that my family members and I are not involved in any financial, extra-marital or other personal disputes. I am, therefore, positive that the assault is related to my job in the newspaper."
Lau was supported by the city's journalists' association, which issued a statement late Wednesday saying it was "surprised" at the police distancing the attack from journalism.
The Hong Kong Journalists Association said: "The remarks [by Tsang] risk misleading the public into believing that the attack is for a personal cause, [for] which the Commissioner has offered no explanation," the statement read.
Tsang said he believed that mainland police had made the arrests in Dongguan, some 100 kilometres away from the semi-autonomous region.
"The two suspected assailants, both aged 37, are Hong Kong residents and are believed to have a triad background," he said.
Tsang did not say when the arrests in China were made, but said he was informed of them on March 9. The seven in Hong Kong were arrested on Wednesday.
He added that an investigation was ongoing and that a request will be made to mainland authorities to return the two suspects to Hong Kong for questioning and trial.
Lau's wife Vivian Chan said late Wednesday following the police announcement that she still believed the attack was linked to her husband's work.
"If the truth is to be revealed as soon as possible I hope police can arrest the mastermind. Then we should know [if] the case is linked to his journalism," she told reporters.
Lau was moved out of intensive care and onto a private ward earlier this month. He remains in hospital and is currently unable to walk.