HONG KONG - Hong Kong police have removed protesters from a major thoroughfare outside government headquarters.
Police used power tools early Wednesday to dismantle barricades set up by demonstrators. Several protesters were arrested and hauled away.
Late Tuesday, police scuffled with protesters in a brief, tense standoff when students ran onto an underground road in front of the government building. Police moved in to remove the students, but they were quickly surrounded and forced to retreat a short time later.
Police say protesters can remain, but they must not block traffic or the tram lines that run through the middle of the street.
Alex Chow of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, which is helping organize the protests, vows they will not back down.
"Whether we have to resist, then it depends on what does it mean to resist. Of course, we will set up obstacles to defer the time of police to eliminate [the barricades]. But we will not fight with the police and that's the principle of non-violence," said Chow.
Police say they will continue targeting other protest sites, repeating the government's stance that the protests are illegal.
The demonstrations began in late September with the protesters, many of them university students, calling for the leader of the semi-autonomous city to resign and for the Chinese government to let Hong Kong voters elect their own leader without restrictions on candidates.
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has said he will not step down.
Pro-government factions yelled criticism at democracy protesters around Admiralty station Tuesday afternoon, while hundreds of riot police looked on impassively.
Hours earlier the same officers, bearing shields and batons and wielding handheld electric grinders to cut through metal, pushed back students and tore down barriers that for two weeks had blocked the Queensway highway.
Unlike on Monday, when clashes erupted between anti-protest groups and pro-democracy activists after police removed blockades, Tuesday's operation resulted in no confrontation.
While the demonstrators withdrew peacefully to other strongholds in the area, they criticized the police action in light of their offer to withdraw from the streets entirely if the government would allow their relocation to Civic Square, the public plaza outside the Hong Kong legislature.
Alex Chow, head of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, said that move has been repeatedly rejected so the activists will remain on the streets.
“As long as the constitutional issue cannot be settled and persuasive answers given the protesters, the movement will be ongoing. Whether we can gain enough bargaining power with the government depends on the number of people supporting the movement. ... As long as the government remains silent, they will come,” Chow said.
The police action to reopen Queensway comes as pro-Beijing civic groups increase pressure on the government to deal more stringently with a democracy movement that has paralyzed Hong Kong for 17 days.
The protesters, most of them students, are demanding full democracy for the former British colony, but their two-week campaign has caused traffic chaos and fueled frustration in the Asian financial hub, draining some public support.
At City Hall, around 200 members of the Chiuchow Association — comprising Hongkongers with ancestral links to this southern Chinese city — marched on student barricades and urged the democracy activists to vacate the streets.
District councilor Stephen Chan Chit-kwai, leading the march, said the protesters continue to prevent shops from opening, students getting to school and patients to hospitals.
“We thank them for their good wishes to do something to improve the community. But we advise them, you know, it has already been more than two weeks, so we advise them to go home and clear the way for the public,” Chan said.
Wednesday will see the Hong Kong legislature resume its first post-summer meeting.
Security around the legislative complex is expected to increase overnight as legislators return.
While there is only one certain topic of discussion in the chamber, uncertainty remains about whether Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying will attend.
Some information for this report comes from AP, AFP and Reuters.