By Adam Rose
HONG KONG (Reuters) - About 200 protesters, many of them Vietnamese, staged an anti-China protest in Hong Kong on Sunday over a sovereignty dispute in the South China Sea, in the first instance of such Vietnam-linked demonstrations so close to China.
The protesters, many of them Vietnamese now resident in Hong Kong, and other supporters, marched peacefully from Hong Kong's government headquarters to a branch office of China's Foreign Ministry brandishing red-starred Vietnamese flags, singing patriotic songs and chanting Vietnamese slogans.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, reverted to China's rule in 1997 but retained considerable autonomy and broad freedoms.
The protesters, watched by around two dozen policemen, were led by a young Vietnamese man holding a portrait of their country's late, wispy-bearded revolutionary leader and former president Ho Chi Minh.
"China, the whole world knows, is now invading into our territorial waters ... We love our country," said one of the protest organizers, Mo Pak Fung.
"We are coming out today because we hope China will leave Vietnam ... We don't want a war to occur," added Mo, who comes from Vietnam but has lived in Hong Kong for the past 25 years.
Tensions have flared between Vietnam and China after the Chinese recently deployed an oil exploration rig in disputed waters.
Protesters in Hong Kong waved several banners reading: "We love Peace withdraw 981 oil rig out of Vietnam sea" and "We need help from international communities".
They did not rule out further action in Hong Kong.
The placement of the oil rig to a location 240 kilometers (150 miles) off Vietnam's coast in an area both counties claim unleashed a deadly wave of violence across Vietnam as thousands of protesters rampaged in industrial zones and set fire to factories.
It was the latest in a series of confrontations between China and some of its neighbors in disputed regions. Washington has responded with sharpened rhetoric toward Beijing, describing a pattern of "provocative" actions by China.
China has so far evacuated more than 3,000 nationals following the attacks on Chinese workers and Chinese-owned businesses at industrial parks in its southern neighbor.
(Reporting by Adam Rose and Tyrone Siu; Writing by James Pomfret; Kim Coghill)