Hong Kong: Hundreds of Hong Kong police officers moved in early on Wednesday to clear pro-democracy protesters out of a tunnel outside the city government headquarters, clashing with protesters in the worst violence since the demonstrations began more than two weeks ago.
Officers, many of them in riot gear and wielding pepper spray, pushed back the crowd and tore down barricades and removed concrete slabs the protesters used as road blocks around the underpass.
Reflecting Beijing's increasing impatience over the demonstrations in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory, a front-page editorial Wednesday in the People's Daily, the ruling Communist Party's mouthpiece, condemned the protests and said “they are doomed to fail.”
“Facts and history tell us that radical and illegal acts that got their way only result in more severe illegal activities, exacerbating disorder and turmoil,” the commentary said, referring to the activists.
“Stability is bliss, and turmoil brings havoc,” it said.
The operation came hours after a large group of protesters blockaded the tunnel, expanding their protest zone after being cleared out of some other streets. The protesters outnumbered the police officers, who later returned with reinforcements to clear the area.
Police said they had to disperse the protesters because they were disrupting public order and gathering illegally. They arrested 37 men and 8 women during the clashes, which police said injured four officers. A police spokesman told local television that none of those arrested were hurt.
“I have to stress here that even though protesters raised their hands in their air it does not mean it was a peaceful protest,” said the spokesman, Tsui Wai-Hung. He said some protesters kicked the officers and attacked them with their umbrellas.
Local television channel TVB showed footage of around six police officers taking a man aside, placing him on the ground and kicking him. Tsui did not provide details of the incident when questioned by reporters.
Officers took away many protesters, their hands tied with plastic cuffs, and pushing others out to a nearby park.
The student-led protesters are now into their third week of occupying key parts of the city to pressure the Asian financial center's government over curbs recommended by Beijing on democratic reforms.
The protests have been largely peaceful, but turned violent overnight, apparently in response to police stepping up action in the past two days to remove barricades and close in on the main protest zone.
Positions on both sides have been hardening since the government called off negotiations last week, citing the unlikelihood of a constructive outcome given their sharp differences.
The protesters want Hong Kong's deeply unpopular Beijing-backed leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, to resign. They also want the Hong Kong government to drop plans for a pro-Beijing committee to screen candidates for the inaugural election to choose his replacement.
Leung has said there is “almost zero chance” that China's government will change its rules for the election, promised for 2017.
The demonstrations have posed an unprecedented challenge to the government. Organizers say as many as 200,000 people thronged the streets for peaceful sit-ins after police used tear gas on Sept. 28 to disperse the unarmed protesters. The numbers have since dwindled.
Police have chipped away at the protest zones in three areas across the city by removing barricades from the edges of the protest zones, signaling growing impatience with activists' occupation of busy streets.
The clearance operation was the latest in a day of tit-for-tat actions between authorities and demonstrators that began Tuesday morning when police used chainsaws and sledgehammers to tear down barricades on a road on the edge of the protest zone.
Activists responded Tuesday evening by barricading the tunnel with tires, metal barricades, water-filled plastic safety barriers and concrete slabs taken from drainage ditches.
They used the slabs to form the shape of an umbrella on the road.
Umbrellas have become a symbol of the protests after demonstrators used them to protect themselves against pepper spray and tear gas used by police in an attempt to disperse them two weeks ago.
Beijing is eager to end the protests to avoid emboldening activists and others on the mainland seen as a threat to the Communist Party's monopoly on power.