Hundreds of Hong Kong police in riot gear violently cleared pro-democracy protesters from a key area in the financial hub in the worst clashes since a mass movement was launched about two weeks ago against Beijing's bid to restrict election reforms in the semiautonomous Chinese territory.
In the early hours of Wednesday local time, the police used pepper spray to clear the defiant demonstrators from a main road next to the city's government headquarters, wrestling some to the ground and arresting them, and tearing down barricades that have been erected, according to reports, citing injuries on both sides.
Forty-five protesters were detained on charges of unlawful assembly and obstructing police, police said.
Many protesters were taken away with their hands tied with temporary handcuffs as police with bolt-cutters and riot shields moved in a phalanx to clear barricades blocking Lung Wo Road near the offices of embattled chief executive C.Y. Leung in Admiralty, live footage streamed online by the Apple Daily media group showed.
Occupy Central, the pro-democracy civil disobedience campaign, tweeted a video captured by the local broadcaster TVB "of 6 policemen carrying [a] protester to [a] corner & beating him for almost 4 [minutes] while he is on ground."
Press not spared
Journalists were also not spared of the violence, believed to be the most serious since Sept. 28, when riot police fired tear gas and pepper spray at largely peaceful crowds calling for full universal suffrage.
Daniel Cheng, a reporter for an online news portal, told the Agence France-Presse news agency that police caught and severely beat him.
"(Police) grabbed me, more than 10 police, and they beat me, punches, kicks, elbows. I tried to tell them I'm a reporter but they didn't listen."
Cheng sported cuts to his lip and bruises on his neck and back, AFP reported. Cheng said he was later released after showing his press card.
AFP journalists also saw police using batons and their gloved fists to beat back protesters, some of them clutching the umbrellas that have become a symbol of their push for the right of Hongkongers to nominate who can run as their next leader in 2017 elections.
The pre-dawn crackdown came days after the government abruptly cancelled a dialogue with student leaders who have been leading the protesters, their number having fallen off sharply from a peak of about 100,000 last week.
On Tuesday local time, Hong Kong police had reminded protesters through megaphones not to push against police lines during a raid on barricades blocking traffic along Queensway in downtown Hong Kong Island.
Traffic flow had been hampered in key areas in the city center for the last two weeks.
An eyewitness and student protester surnamed Yau said she had no intention of confronting police, however.
"Actually, I'm worried that other people will think we've gone too far, if even ambulances can't get through," Yau said. "Perhaps we will get complaints from non-protesters."
Hong Kong's transportation and haulage industry has hit out at the blocked roads as contributing to economic losses, while the tram-drivers' union said their members are paid by the hour, and have been unable to make an adequate wage after tram-lines were blocked by Occupy protests.
A second protester surnamed Wong said the protesters had remained "calm and reasonable" throughout the police operation, however.
"We won't try to stop the police from using force to disperse protesters, but I want the general public to know that we aren't here to obstruct everyone's daily lives," Wong said.
"We are here for freedom and democracy for Hong Kong for the next few generations," he said.
Some 100 protesters remained at the Hong Kong Island shopping district of Causeway Bay, although police removed some tents and barricades there, too.
A protester surnamed Lam at the Admiralty site said police had moved too fast in the early hours for protesters to stop them.
"They were very fast today," Lam said. "They saw that there weren't so many people here, so they moved in."
"They were organized, while we are self-organizing, so we were never going to be quick enough."
Protest coordinator Alex Chow, who heads the influential Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) said protesters who remained at the Causeway Bay site are likely more vulnerable to disturbances from anti-Occupy protesters, who have repeatedly faced off with the Occupy Central movement in verbal and physical clashes in recent days.
Joshua Wong, head of the academic activism group Scholarism, said before the crackdown that protesters aren't afraid of further police action, however.
"I am confident that we will be able to continue this movement using our principles of peaceful and non-violent protest," Wong told RFA.
Across the harbor in Mong Kok, around 200 protesters gathered at a busy intersection, expecting further police action in the coming days.
A student protester surnamed Hui told RFA said the protesters had already moved to strengthen the barricades protecting them to prevent a sudden move by police to clear the area.
"The students will hang on here to the last possible minute," Hui said.
Police claim transparency
Senior police superintendent Steve Hui told reporters that the police had acted with great transparency.
"The police operation was carried out very openly ... with warnings given beforehand, and reassurances that the police weren't attempting to force protesters to clear the area," Hui said.
"If we move to clear the protests, we will inform people in advance, to give citizens a chance to leave."
Meanwhile, anti-Occupy protesters blockaded the gates of the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper offices in Tseung Kwan O industrial estate, delaying delivery of the paper by a couple of hours for a second day in a row, live online footage from the Apple Daily showed.
Journalists questioned the anti-Occupy protesters, who spoke with accents from across the internal border in neighboring Guangdong province, asking if they were being paid for the blockade.
The protesters faced off with journalists in an altercation that lasted more than 20 minutes, asking them for their press passes, and daring them to "come over here and say that," the footage showed.
"However well-organized the Occupy movement is, it's still going to have to put up with increased surveillance and threats from other people," Joseph Cheng, politics professor at Hong Kong's City University, told RFA.
"Everyone knows that if you face off with such a huge organization as the Chinese Communist Party, you can't prevent this," he said.
He said details of meetings of his Alliance for True Democracy campaign group frequently leaked outside.
"For the past few years, whenever Hong Kong democracy activists have held a meeting, we put all our cell phones in a different room," Cheng said. "It's not just now."
He said cyberattacks on pro-democracy websites in Hong Kong have been ongoing for many months, and have only been stepped up since the Occupy protests began.
"We had them before, but now they're much, much more serious," Cheng said, adding that most campaigners won't be put off, because they are expecting a "long and difficult struggle."
Protesters want the ruling Chinese Communist Party to change its mind about an Aug. 31 ruling by its rubber stamp National People's Congress (NPC) that limits candidates to two or three people, hand-picked by a pro-Beijing committee.
Pro-democracy politicians and protesters alike have dismissed the NPC plan as "fake universal suffrage," because they mean a pro-democratic candidate is highly unlikely to be selected.
Students say Leung failed to take into account the wishes of 700,000 people who voted in an unofficial online referendum in support of public nominations.
But according to HKFS leader Chow, any sort of compromise is unlikely from Leung and his administration.
"C.Y. Leung isn't going to make any concessions at all," Chow said. "But it's not the people who are to blame, here. It's the government."
Reported by Lin Jing and Pan Jiaqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long, Xin Lin and Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Written in English by Luisetta Mudie and Parameswaran Ponnudurai.