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Hong Kong officials widen legal attack on city's democrats over oath-taking

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File photo of pro-democracy lawmaker Lau Siu-lai attending a news conference in Hong Kong

Pro-democracy lawmaker Lau Siu-lai attends a news conference at the Legislative Council in Hong Kong November 30, 2016. REUTERS/Bobby Yip/File Photo

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong's leaders on Friday widened their legal fight against the city's pro-democratic camp, targeting four more lawmakers over oaths taken at a legislative council swearing-in ceremony in October.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen began the action two days after a pair of barred pro-independence lawmakers, Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-ching, lost a legal appeal against their disqualification, government radio station RTHK reported.

Beijing's Communist Party leaders are alarmed about the spread of independence and self-determination ideas in the former British colony, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" formula.

The formula allows wide-ranging freedoms in Hong Kong, a separate legal system and specifies universal suffrage as an eventual goal.

The latest move came after Beijing staged a rare interpretation of Hong Kong's mini-constitution in early November to effectively bar democratically-elected Leung and Yau from taking office there.

Yau and Leung pledged allegiance to the "Hong Kong nation" and displayed a banner declaring "Hong Kong is not China" during a swearing-in ceremony for the Legislative Council in October.

While the pair were disqualified before they could take office, the latest action targets lawmakers whose oaths were accepted and have taken up their legislative seats.

Among them is veteran lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung, a prominent advocate of democracy, known across the city as "Long-hair".

The others are younger lawmakers Lau Siu Lai, Edward Yiu and Nathan Law, RTHK reported. Lau and Law have called for far more autonomy for Hong Kong to protect it against greater controls by China.

The government is challenging the actions of the legislature's president, Andrew Leung, to earlier accept, or allow them to re-take, their oaths.

Law, one of the young activists who helped lead street protests that rocked Hong Kong for 79 days in 2014, said the government's Department of Justice on Friday night informed him of the action.

"The controversies surrounding the oath-taking are a suppression of the pro-democratic forces by the authorities," Law, 23, said in a statement.

"This is a very grave challenge for the pro-democracy political camp," he added, describing the measure as "total war" waged by Chief Executive Leung against all democrats.

Senior democratic figures are warning of a popular backlash against Leung, whom they accuse of using the independence issue to wage a legal "coup" against long-standing democratic forces, on behalf of Beijing.

Leung's term ends next year but he has yet to confirm he will stand for re-election in March by a panel of 1,200 largely pro-establishment community figures.

(Reporting by Pak Yiu, Venus Wu, Anne-Marie Roantree and Greg Torode; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)