HONG KONG - Hundreds of Hong Kong police cleared a pro-democracy protest camp, arresting Joshua Wong and another student leader and reopening a main road blocked for almost two months.
Pushing back protesters, police with the help of workmen removed tents and other obstacles blocking the six-lane Nathan Road in Mongkok district.
It was seen as the most significant move so far in efforts to clear away protest camps at three separate locations in the city, as public sympathy with the demonstrators wanes.
Scuffles broke out earlier in the day as police wearing helmets and brandishing batons moved in to protect the workmen, when crowds surged forward to try to stop them tearing down road barricades.
The operation went ahead a day after more than 100 demonstrators were arrested as authorities cleared a smaller section of the Mongkok protest camp.
Hundreds of police quickly pushed protesters back, and removed wooden and metal barricades, tents and other obstructions along a 500-metre stretch of Nathan Road.
Around two hours after the operation started, only a handful of protesters remained at the edge of the site.
The movement's student leaders Wong and Lester Shum were arrested at the scene, according to a group called Scholarism and the Hong Kong Federation of Students.
It was not immediately clear why they were detained.
Tensions were running high Wednesday after scuffles the previous day when police used pepper spray on protesters at the site.
Mongkok was the scene of some of the most violent clashes since the sit-ins began in the city on September 28.
"If we lose here, we won't lose heart. We can go somewhere else (to occupy). It doesn't need to be here," Kelvin Ng, 21, told AFP.
Demonstrators are demanding fully free elections for the leadership of the semi-autonomous southern Chinese city in 2017. But China has refused to budge on its arrangements for the poll.
Police said they arrested 116 people, including a 14-year-old boy, after Tuesday's clashes and 20 police officers were injured.
Waning public support
Wednesday's clearance was the third since Hong Kong's high court, responding to petitions from a building owner and public transport operators, granted injunctions ordering the operations.
"Please obey the injunction, leave immediately," a court bailiff told the crowd before the operation began.
Civilians wearing "I love HK" T-shirts and red baseball caps then began removing barricades blocking the road but protesters remained defiant.
"I won't leave. It's (the sit-in) been illegal from day one with or without the court order," said one demonstrator, wearing a yellow helmet and a mask, who refused to give his name.
The demonstrators are protesting against China's restrictions on who will be allowed to stand in the 2017 election for the city's chief executive.
Critics say this will guarantee the election of a pro-Beijing candidate.
The protests on a few occasions drew tens of thousands of people onto the streets.
But the crowds have dwindled markedly in recent weeks as the movement has struggled to maintain momentum and commuters have grown weary of transport disruptions.
The Hong Kong Federation of Students, which has led the protests, said it was considering the next step.
"The path of communication has run its course. If the government continues to resort to collusion with the police, unscrupulously going against the tide, then we can only take the next step of action," it said on its Facebook page without elaborating.
Demonstrators clashed with police in Mongkok last month after protesters tried to reclaim part of a camp which had been cleared by authorities.
Officers at that time used batons and pepper spray against protesters who shielded themselves with umbrellas, but police were eventually forced into a partial retreat.