Beijing supporters storm protest tents in Mong Kok

Beijing supporters storm protest tents in Mong Kok

HONG KONG - Violent scuffles broke out in one of Hong Kong's most famous and congested shopping districts on Friday, as hundreds of supporters of Chinese rule stormed tents and ripped down banners belonging to pro-democracy protesters, forcing many to retreat.

As night fell and news of the confrontation spread, more protesters headed for the gritty, bustling district of Mong Kok, considered one of the most crowded places on Earth, to reinforce.

Tens of thousands have taken to Hong Kong's streets in the past week to demand full democracy in the former British colony, including a free voting system when they come to choose a new leader in 2017.

Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying agreed to open talks with pro-democracy protesters but refused to stand down. He and his Chinese government backers made clear that they would not back down in the face of the city's worst unrest in decades.

Numbers dwindled at some protest sites in and around the Central financial district as rain fell on Friday and as Hong Kong people returned to work after a two-day holiday.

But in Mong Kok, with its high-rise apartment blocks packed close together over neon lights, bars, restaurants and open-air markets, about 1,000 Beijing supporters clashed with about 100 protesters, spitting and throwing water bottles in a side-show to the main protest movement.

Police formed a human chain to separate the two groups amid the wail of sirens.

Some demonstrators held umbrellas for police in the rain while Beijing supporters shouted at police for failing to clear the demonstrators.

"We are all fed up and our lives are affected," said teacher Victor Ma, 42. "You don't hold Hong Kong citizens hostage because it's not going to work. That's why the crowd is very angry here."

Benny Tai, a co-founder of the Occupy Central movement and a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, urged protesters to leave Mong Kok and regroup in Admiralty, the main protest site next to Central.

But more reinforcements were arriving as the three main protest groups threatened to call off any talks with the government unless police stopped the crowd violence against them.

Mong Kok is popular with visitors from the mainland but not as well known to Western tourists as the luxury shopping area of Causeway Bay, on the island of Hong Kong, where pedestrians were trying to remove protest barricades put up by Occupy protesters.

Leung refused to bow to an ultimatum from protesters to resign. Police have warned repeatedly of serious consequences if protesters try to block off or occupy government buildings in and around Central.

Leung told reporters just minutes before the ultimatum expired at midnight on Thursday that Chief Secretary Carrie Lam would meet students soon to discuss political reforms, but gave no timeframe.

Lam on Friday urged protesters to go home.

"Sentiments are running high because of the prolonged strike, which leads to a higher chance of conflict," she said.

The protests have ebbed and flowed since Sunday when police used pepper spray, tear gas and baton charges to break up the demonstrations, which are the biggest since the former British colony was handed back to Chinese rule in 1997.

China rules Hong Kong through a "one country, two systems" formula underpinned by the Basic Law, which accords Hong Kong some autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland and has universal suffrage as an eventual goal.

But Beijing decreed on Aug. 31 it would vet candidates who want to run for chief executive at an election in 2017, angering democracy activists who took to the streets.

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