Thousands of riot officers will be deployed in Hong Kong on Thursday to enforce a ban against the annual candlelight vigil to commemorate the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, according to police insiders.

The South China Morning Post quoted the insiders as saying that the ban was being officially enforced on health grounds, and those trying to circumvent the rules by splitting into smaller groups would still be breaking the law.

“Police will observe and enforce the law as the situation requires,” a high-ranking officer told the South China Morning Post.

The gathering in Victoria Park, an annual ritual of sombre tribute to the struggle of the students, was attended by more than 180,000 people last year.

Zhou Fengsuo, a student leader during the Tiananmen Square protests who now lives in exile in the United States, told media that he was distressed to learn that the city’s police had banned this year’s vigil because of social-distancing rules in place over the Covid-19 pandemic.

In their letter of objection to this year’s vigil, police cited that the Hong Kong government’s prohibition of public gatherings of more than eight people, which was on Tuesday extended to June 18, saying any large public assemblies would increase the risk of COVID-19 infection in the city.

Of the 3,000 riot police, 2,000 of them would be deployed on Hong Kong Island, where two water cannons were to be stationed at the government headquarters in Admiralty and near Beijing’s liaison office in Sai Ying Pun, the sources said.

Since 1990, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China has held the vigil in remembrance of the crackdown ordered by Beijing on June 4, 1989 to end a weeks-long, student-led democracy protest.

(With inputs from agency)