Hong Kong (dpa) – Police were struggling to keep crowds off main roads in Hong Kong late Friday after nearly three weeks of demonstrations for open elections in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.
Protesters in the “Occupy” movement used umbrellas and face masks to against police pepper spray and batons during an hours-long standoff in the dense commercial and residential district of Mong Kok on the Kowloon peninsula.
Hundreds of Hong Kong police linked arms to form a barrier near the intersection of Nathan Road and Argyle Street to allow traffic to pass, but in some areas traffic was reduced to a single lane.
Police had cleared most of the protest site in Mong Kok early Friday, but over a thousand protesters returned to the area Friday evening.
“Our strategy was to arrive all at once so that we wouldn’t be dragged off easily by police,” protester Walter Mak told dpa.
“We will keep coming back even if police beat us. Mong Kok is the real heart of Hong Kong so we must defend it.”
Speaking to crowds at Admiralty outside government headquarters late Friday, student leader Joshua Wong encouraged protesters to go to Mong Kok and said, “If we lose any of our three battlegrounds [Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok], the whole movement will suffer a blow.”
The latest clashes came after security forces cleared a blockaded tunnel near government headquarters on Hong Kong island on Wednesday, leading to dozens of arrests.
A video circulated online of a group of officers apparently leading a handcuffed protester from the site around a corner and beating him in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
Local legislators identified the protester as Ken Tsang, who is a member of the pro-democracy Civic Party.
After being released on bail late Wednesday, Tsang gave a statement to media outside a police station, where he displayed cuts and bruises on his body.
“Police officers brutally assaulted me while I was detained and defenseless,” he said. “Prior to that I was assaulted and later I was assaulted yet again in the police station. I have sought legal advice to take … action against the police concerned.”
Authorities said they had launched an investigation into what Secretary for Security Lai Tung-kwok called “inappropriate force against an arrested person.”
Emotional stress has plagued frontline police officers, chief superintendent of the police public relations branch Hui Chun-tak said Friday afternoon, adding that he was personally “deeply hurt” that police were being compared to organized crime gangs.
The protests are calling for open elections for the city’s next chief executive in 2017, rejecting a ruling from Beijing that candidates must be approved by a government-backed election committee.
On Thursday, Hong Kong’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, said that the government was prepared to start talks with student leaders as soon as next week, but ruled out any change to the central government’s ruling.
The Hong Kong Federation of Students issued a statement late Friday requesting to meet with the government before Wednesday and asked that the government stop “flip-flopping” on its stance so both sides could have a basis for talks.
Beijing-based political analyst Zhang Lifan told dpa he didn’t believe the Chinese government would give in to protesters’ demands. However, he said the protests have shown that people in Hong Kong are aware of political issues and the offer to start talks is a sign Beijing wants to “appease the protesters.”
In recent days, the numbers of demonstrators on the streets – mainly high school and university students – has fallen further from their peak of tens of thousands at the end of last month.