HONG KONG - Hong Kong police charged protesters gathered at a barricade early Sunday, leaving many requiring medical treatment just hours after the government confirmed talks aimed at ending three weeks of pro-democracy rallies.
Police in heavy riot gear rained blows on protesters in the northern district of Mongkok, with some carried off on stretchers and others treated for head wounds, fractures and bruising, according to AFP journalists and medics at the scene.
Accusations that the semi-autonomous Chinese territory's police are being used as a political tool have dogged the highly respected force, which has a reputation across Asia for honest and impartial policing.
Police said in a Sunday statement they had used "minimum force" as protesters approached their cordon lines.
Hong Kong's government had confirmed Saturday it will open talks with student demonstrators on Tuesday, speaking before the fourth night of violent clashes in areas of the city paralysed by mass pro-democracy rallies.
"Right now we are planning that it will take place on the afternoon of Tuesday, October 21," Leung's deputy Carrie Lam told reporters on Saturday.
Lam said the talks - which will be broadcast live - would be focused on constitutional reform, with both sides allowed to bring five members to the meeting.
But hopes of any breakthrough are slim, with the government unlikely to cede to protesters' core demands - the resignation of embattled Chief Executive Leung Chun-Ying and free leadership elections for the semi-autonomous Chinese city in 2017.
Beijing insists that candidates for the vote must be vetted by a committee expected to be loyal to China, and Leung has warned that the country's communist authorities have no intention of backing down.
Uptick in violence
Sunday's violence was indicative of a wider trend of increased force being deployed in the last few days as officers attempt to clear roads blockaded at three sites after two weeks of relative calm.
One volunteer medic said that she had seen four people with head injuries with "serious bleeding" as well as a fractured back. Another protester had collapsed unconscious with exhaustion, she said.
"One of the men with a head injury had been hit by a police baton three times," said Carla Chau, 20, a medical student volunteering at the first aid station set up at the Mongkok site.
Some injured protesters were taken to nearby Kwung Wah hospital, where activists told AFP at least 10 or more were being treated for injuries to their legs, arms and heads, including suspected fractures.
One protester said that police had reacted when a front line of demonstrators blocking a key road opened their umbrellas and rested them on the barricades.
"They hit us without any reason when we were standing behind the roadblock. I was hit by a police stick four or five times. I protected myself with my hands and they hit my body... there was blood all over my head and they took me for medical treatment," said Jackie, 30, sitting with his head bandaged and blood still on his t-shirt.
"We didn't do anything - some people behind me opened out their umbrellas and then the police started hitting people. There was no aggressive action on our side." Police said in a statement Sunday they had taken "resolute action by applying minimum force to disperse them to prevent the situation from deteriorating".
They said protesters had attempted to charge police cordon lines by pulling aside barriers and shoving officers, but confirmed three protesters and an officer were injured.