Fresh clashes in Hong Kong as pro-democracy activists regroup
(Reuters) - Hong Kong riot police used pepper spray and baton charged pro-democracy protesters who mobilised en masse on Friday evening after a pre-dawn clearance of a major protest zone in the Chinese-controlled financial hub.
Over a thousand protesters, some clad in protective goggles and helmets, thronged to the gritty and congested Mong Kok district after work and school on Friday evening, to try to reclaim sections of an intersection that police had cleared in a surprise raid early on Friday.
Student leaders urged people via Facebook and social media to retake the area that has been a flashpoint for ugly street fights between students and mobs, including triads, or local gangsters, intent on breaking up their protracted and unprecedented protest movement.
Demonstrators chanting "open the road" tried to break through multiple police lines and used upturned umbrellas to shield themselves from pepper spray. In the melee, police used batons and scuffled violently with throngs of activists, some of whom were wrestled away and taken into police custody.
"It's vital to keep this site," said Joshua Wong, a bookish 18-year-old whose fiery speeches have helped drive the protests.
"All the sites are very important. We will stay and fight till the end," he said while standing atop a subway station exit and addressing the seething crowds below.
The protesters, led by a restive generation of students, have been demanding China's Communist Party rulers live up to constitutional promises to grant full democracy to the former British colony which returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Before dawn on Friday, hundreds of police staged their biggest raid yet on a pro-democracy protest camp, charging down student-led activists who had held the intersection in one of their main protest zones for more than three weeks.
The operation came while many protesters were asleep in dozens of tents or beneath giant, blue-striped tarpaulin sheets.
The raid was a gamble for the 28,000-strong police force who have come under criticism for aggressive clearance operations with tear gas and baton charges and for the beating of a handcuffed protester on Wednesday.
Storming into the intersection from four directions, with helmets, riot shields and batons at the ready, the 800 officers caught the protesters by surprise. Many retreated without resisting.
"The Hong Kong government's despicable clearance here will cause another wave of citizen protests," radio talk-show host and activist Wong Yeung-tat said earlier.
In the evening, with more protesters streaming to the area, authorities closed nearby underground train station exits.
Police raised red flags, warning the protesters not to charge, with intermittent scuffles breaking out as protesters repeatedly tried to breach police lines.
The escalation in the confrontation illustrates the dilemma faced by police in striking a balance between law enforcement and not inciting the protesters who have been out for three weeks in three core shopping and government districts.
In August, Beijing offered Hong Kong people the chance to vote for their own leader in 2017, but said only two to three candidates could run after getting backing from a 1,200-person "nominating committee" stacked with Beijing loyalists.
The protesters decry this as "fake" Chinese-style democracy and say they won't leave the streets unless Beijing allows open nominations.
Earlier this week, police had used sledge-hammers and chainsaws to tear down concrete, metal and bamboo barricades to reopen a major road feeding the Central business district.
Despite the clearances, about 1,000 protesters remained camped across the iconic harbour area on Hong Kong Island in a sea of tents and umbrellas on an eight-lane highway beneath skyscrapers close to government headquarters.
Hong Kong's pro-Beijing leader Leung Chun-ying has said there is "zero chance" Beijing will give in to protesters' demands, a view shared by many observers and Hong Kong citizens. He has also refused to step down.
Leung has proposed talks next week with student leaders. Hong Kong's Cable Television quoted a government source as saying the earlier the talks, postponed late last week, could resume, the better.
The Hong Kong Association of Banks called on Friday for an end to the occupation to help preserve competitiveness and maintain investor confidence.
Protest numbers have surged and waned since Sept. 28 from well over 100,000 to just several hundred during mid-week lulls, presenting Beijing with one of its biggest political challenges since it crushed pro-democracy demonstrations in and around Tiananmen Square in the Chinese capital in 1989.
China rules Hong Kong under a "one country, two systems" formula that gives the city wide-ranging autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China, with "universal suffrage" stated as the eventual aim.
It is concerned calls for full democracy in Hong Kong, and in the neighbouring former Portuguese colony of Macau, could spread to the mainland, threatening the Communist party's grip on power.
(Additional reporting by Donny Kwok, Yimou Lee, Twinnie Siu, Diana Chan, Bobby Yip, Jon Gordon; Edting by Robert Birsel/Ruth Pitchford)