HONG KONG - Hong Kong police clashed with pro-democracy demonstrators Wednesday after a small group attempted to break into the city's legislature, as splits emerged within the movement ahead of the expected clearance of protest camps.
Around 100 police used pepper spray and batons as they battled hundreds of protesters, some in helmets and waving umbrellas - a symbol of their movement - in an angry confrontation that broke out in the early hours. Officers made six arrests.
"Police strongly condemn such acts by the protesters, which disrupted public order," the police force said in a statement.
The clashes were sparked when a group of around a dozen masked protesters smashed their way through a side entrance to the southern Chinese city's Legislative Council (LegCo) using metal barricades as battering rams.
"Smash it open then get inside," one protester was heard saying in footage aired by the local TVB channel.
At least one demonstrator made their way into the building, according to the Apple Daily newspaper.
A regular session of the chamber was cancelled on Wednesday and visitor tours of the complex were suspended, the government said in a statement.
Demonstrators have been camped on three major Hong Kong thoroughfares for seven weeks, demanding free leadership elections for the semi-autonomous city, but public support has ebbed as the weeks pass with little progress.
Beijing insists that candidates for the 2017 vote for the city's top post must be vetted by a loyalist committee - an arrangement the protesters say will ensure the election of a pro-Beijing stooge.
The authorities moved in for the first time Tuesday to take down some barricades at the main protest camp, which is close to the legislative building in the downtown Admiralty district, after a court granted an order to remove obstructions.
'Sitting here is not a solution'
The break-in was the clearest indication yet that a small faction of protesters want to ramp up rather than scale down action after the court-backed bailiffs' action at Admiralty.
The execution of a second injunction ordering the clearance of a protest site in the Mongkok district on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong is expected within days, and though that area is smaller it has been the focal point of violence between police, protesters and anti-Occupy groups in the last few weeks.
"I think we should all move to occupy inside government headquarters and LegCo," a 23-year-old protester who gave his surname as Wong told AFP in Mongkok.
"In Taiwan, activists occupied the parliament on the first day. Now we have been sleeping out here for 50 odd days before we actually do it," he added, referring to a month-long sit-in by students opposed to a trade pact with China.
"Nothing has been achieved at Admiralty," said 18-year-old Saki Tin, who said she supported the group who attempted the break-in after camping out for 40 days. "Sitting here is not a solution".
The protests have largely been peaceful but have been punctuated with clashes, and police used tear gas on large crowds in late September.
Student protest leaders said after the latest confrontation that their movement was committed to non-violence.
"It's not something we like to see... We call on occupiers to stick firm to peaceful and non-violent principles and be a responsible participant of the umbrella movement," said 21-year-old Lester Shum of the Hong Kong Federation of Students.
The leadership has its supporters. David Cheng, a hairdresser, told AFP those who tried to storm the legislative headquarters did not represent him.
"I don't really support the approach. There might be violence or casualties. It's not something we are fighting for," he said.
And in an interview with Australian newspaper The Age published Wednesday, Hong Kong media magnate Jimmy Lai urged protesters to abandon the occupation altogether for fear of "exhausting" the goodwill of the population. Lai is a heavyweight backer of the movement.
A former British colony, Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" deal that guarantees civil liberties not seen on the mainland, including freedom of speech and the right to protest.
But concerns have been growing that these freedoms are being eroded, and frustrations have also been building over growing inequality in the freewheeling financial hub.