By Grace Li
HONG KONG, March 12 (Reuters) - Police in Hong Kong and China have arrested nine men with suspected links to organised crime for the stabbing of a prominent Hong Kong journalist, the territory's chief of police said on Wednesday, an attack that was seen by many as an assault on press freedom.
Thousands of protesters dressed in black and wearing blue ribbons, symbolizing press freedom, marched in condemnation of the attack this month. Protesters held up banners saying "They can't kill us all" and "Protect press freedom".
Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997, is a freewheeling capitalist hub which enjoys a high degree of autonomy and freedom, but Beijing's Communist Party leaders have resisted public pressure for full democracy.
Two men had been arrested in China, and seven in Hong Kong in connection with the attack on Kevin Lau, a former editor of the respected Ming Pao newspaper, who was seriously wounded.
"We suspect the assailants were hired and they have a triad background," said Andy Tsang, Hong Kong's commissioner of police, referring to Chinese organised criminal gangs.
All nine were Hong Kong residents. Tsang declined to give specific grounds for making the arrests, but said preliminary inquiries suggested the attacks had nothing to do with Lau's journalistic work.
"We will not rule out any motive at the moment, but according to the information at hand there is nothing to suspect it is related to journalism at all," he told reporters.
Suspicions had spread that powerful individuals from mainland China or pro-Beijing allies opposed to the city's push for full democracy may have been involved in the attack.
The two men were arrested in China's Guangdong province by Chinese police, with whom Hong Kong police have been co-operating closely on the case, Tsang said.
The lack of a rendition arrangement between Hong Kong and China, however, meant that it wasn't yet clear whether the men could be brought back to the city to face trial, he added.
"We will continue investigating this crime. We don't rule out more people being arrested," said Tsang.
Lau, speaking from his hospital bed where he's now in stable condition, said earlier he hoped police could crack the case swiftly "to restore journalists' confidence in the rule of law".
Lau, who until recently had been chief editor of Ming Pao, a Chinese-language newspaper known for its investigative reports, was stabbed in the back and legs several times by a man in a helmet on Feb. 26. The assailant rode off on a motorcycle with an accomplice.
Lau's wife, Vivien, told reporters she believed the attack was related to his journalistic work.
"The mastermind behind the case still hasn't been found," she said. "I hope they can find him as soon as possible ... to know whether it's related to media freedoms or not." (Reporting By Grace Li; writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Nick Macfie)