HONG KONG - Pro-democracy protesters on Sunday accused police of using excessive force against them after violent clashes in Hong Kong, as a senior politician said weeks of rallies have reached a "critical moment".
Dozens of police with riot gear pushed into a crowd of angry demonstrators in the Mongkok district early Sunday, striking at them repeatedly with batons.
Twenty people were injured in a fourth night of clashes between protesters demanding free elections for the semi-autonomous Chinese city, and police trying to restore traffic to the major Mongkok thoroughfare they have brought to a standstill.
The spike in violence comes after three weeks of largely peaceful pro-democracy rallies and road blockades that have paralysed key parts of the Asian financial hub.
At a press conference at the Mongkok camp on Sunday, organisers blasted police for a response that left some demonstrators with head wounds, fractures and bruising, with others carried away on stretchers.
"If this goes on, one day there may be someone who loses his life or gets seriously injured - then the situation in Hong Kong will get out of control," said activist Lam Cheuk-ting.
Police said in a statement they used "minimum force" as protesters "suddenly attempted to charge" their cordon lines.
Talks between student protest leaders and government officials are still set to go ahead on Tuesday despite the clashes - but with little common ground between the two sides, there are slim hopes of a breakthrough.
China insists that candidates for the 2017 vote for Hong Kong's leader must be approved by a pro-Beijing committee - a condition which the protesters dismiss as "fake democracy".
But Hong Kong's current leader Leung Chun-ying has warned that Chinese authorities have no intention of backing down.
Rallies have seen tens of thousands take to the streets several times over the last three weeks. Although numbers are dwindling, protesters still occupy key roads in the city.
The rallies are one of the biggest challenges to Beijing's authority since the Tiananmen pro-democracy protests of 1989.
Plea for retreat
Finance secretary John Tsang said Sunday the protests had reached a "critical moment" and urged the demonstrators to retreat.
"I was young before and I have taken part in various student movements," he wrote on his blog.
"Retreating is not an easy decision. It takes a lot of bravery. I still believe that you can take the courage to make right decisions at this critical moment." Protest leaders addressing the crowds in Mongkok on Sunday suggested a three-day "cooling off period" could help lower simmering tensions between police and demonstrators.
"Those who are sick and tired, please go home for 72 hours to have a cooling-off period," said Ed Chin of Occupy Central, one of the main groups organising the protests.
Christian pastor Fung Chi-wood said the police, for their part, should pledge a lighter-handed approach.