HONG KONG (AP) — Riot police cleared an offshoot Hong Kong pro-democracy protest zone in a dawn raid on Friday, taking down barricades, tents and canopies that have blocked key streets for more than two weeks, but leaving the city's main thoroughfare still in the hands of the activists.
Hundreds of officers, some in helmets and shields, descended in the early morning on the busy district of Mong Kok, a smaller protest zone across the Victoria Harbor from the main occupied area in the city's financial district. The key thoroughfare in Admiralty, near the heart of the city's financial district, remained occupied by protesters.
The dawn operation — the third in recent days by police to retake streets from protesters — came hours after Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying sought to defuse a bitter standoff with student-led democracy protesters by reviving an offer of talks over democratic reforms in the city.
However, Leung warned police wouldn't refrain from clearing protest sites while holding talks and the latest operation is likely to make it harder to resolve the crisis with protesters, who were already angered by a video of a group of officers beating a handcuffed activist.
Officers swiftly tore down metal barricades, bamboo and wooden planks used by protesters to block off the streets as well as blue and white striped tarps covering their main campsite in the middle of a four-way intersection. Much of the protest zone was cleared in about half an hour.
Police surrounded about 30 protesters, who did not put up resistance. There were no clashes but several activists lay down on the street after the operation and refused to budge. About 200 other protesters who had dispersed earlier returned to join them to occupy a block of the southbound lanes on busy Nathan Road. Police said they would be allowed to stay.
Leung said Thursday the protests, which have disrupted traffic in key roads and streets in three business districts since Sept. 26, could not go on indefinitely. Protesters are pressing for a greater say in choosing the semiautonomous Chinese city's leader in an inaugural direct election, promised for 2017.
Tensions have escalated in the past few days as riot police armed with pepper spray and batons clashed with activists. Hundreds of police scuffled with protesters as they battled for control for a road near the city's government headquarters on Wednesday. Many in Hong Kong condemned police after officers were seen kicking the handcuffed protester and dragging dozens of others away.
Leung said government is ready to meet with student leaders as soon as next week, but urged them to be pragmatic, reiterating that Beijing will not change its mind on election restrictions. That raised doubts that the proposed meeting can overcome the vast differences between the two sides.
Students and activists oppose Beijing's ruling that a committee stacked with pro-Beijing elites should screen candidates in the territory's first direct election. That effectively means that Beijing can vet candidates before they go to a public vote.
Alex Chow of the Hong Kong Federation of Students welcomed Leung's offer but criticized the government for setting preconditions. Many other demonstrators gathered in the main protest zone late Thursday echoed his view.
"I paid attention to what (Leung) said but I couldn't find anything constructive. He didn't say anything new and I don't think it is going to break this deadlock," said Tong Wing-ho, 26.
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