HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong pro-democracy activists recaptured parts of a core protest zone early on Saturday, defying riot police who had tried to disperse them with pepper spray and baton charges.
About a thousand protesters, some wearing protective goggles and helmets, helped to build fresh barricades from wooden fencing and other materials in the gritty, densely populated Mong Kok district. Some chanted “black police” after the police struck demonstrators’ umbrellas with their small metal batons.
The area has become a flashpoint for ugly street brawls between students and mobs, including triads, or local gangsters, intent on breaking up the prolonged protests that pose one of the biggest political challenges for China since the crushing of pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing in 1989.
Demonstrators chanting “open the road” tried late on Friday to break through multiple police lines, using umbrellas as a shield from pepper spray at a major traffic intersection.
In the melee, police used batons and scuffled violently with activists, but were eventually forced into a partial retreat, less than 24 hours after re-opening most of the area to traffic.
“Occupy Mong Kok!” a jubilant sea of several thousand people chanted afterwards. “We want real universal suffrage!”
Twenty-six people were arrested and 15 officers were injured, the government said in a statement.
“The police have no right to throw us out,” said Fish Tong, a 20-year-old student in the crowd. “We are just here to take back what is supposed to belong to us.”
The renewed clashes came just hours after Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leader Leung Chun-ying offered talks to student leaders next week in an attempt to defuse weeks of protests that have paralyzed parts of the city and grabbed global headlines amid scenes of violent clashes and tear gas rising between some of the world’s most valuable office buildings.
The protesters are demanding free elections for their leader in 2017, but China insists on screening candidates first and Leung reiterated that the government would not compromise.
“We will stay and fight till the end,” Joshua Wong, a bookish 18-year-old whose fiery speeches have helped drive the protests, told the seething crowds late on Friday while standing atop a subway station exit.
Before dawn on Friday, hundreds of police had staged their biggest raid yet on a pro-democracy protest camp, forcing out student-led activists who had held the traffic intersection in one of their main protest zones for more than three weeks.
The raid was a gamble for the 28,000-strong police force who have come under criticism for aggressive clearance operations with their tear gas and baton charges and for the beating of a handcuffed protester on Wednesday. What initially seemed to be a smooth clearance operation has now sparked a bigger backlash.
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.
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.
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” democracy and say they won’t leave the streets unless Beijing allows open nominations.
Besides Mong Kok, about 1,000 protesters remained camped out on Hong Kong Island in a sea of tents on an eight-lane highway beneath skyscrapers close to government headquarters.
Despite Leung’s offer of talks next week, few expect any resolution without more concrete concessions from authorities.
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 “ultimate aim”.
Additional reporting by Twinnie Siu and Diana Chan; Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Gareth Jones