HONG KONG - Riot police began clearing a major pro-democracy protest site in Hong Kong on Wednesday, following street clashes overnight, and scuffles broke out as some protesters tried to resist attempts to force them off the streets, Reuters witnesses said.
Hundreds of protesters remained on Nathan Road, at the heart of the protest site in the gritty Mong Kok district, brandishing yellow banners and chanting for "full democracy" in the former British colony, but were pushed back by the large number of police.
Earlier, court-appointed bailiffs had warned protesters to leave and around 80 workers in red caps and "I love Hong Kong"T-shirts began clearing metal and wooden barricades laid across the road, where hundreds of tents have been erected in a two-month civil disobedience campaign.
Scuffles and swearing broke out as police moved in, and several protesters who resisted were hauled away, witnesses said.
The clearance operation could be a major test for law enforcement authorities, with several thousand riot and tactical unit officers reportedly on standby. "If you resist you face possible imprisonment. We warn you to immediately stop resisting," said a policeman into a loud hailer before jeering activists, some clad in goggles and hard hats.
Overnight, police had arrested 80 pro-democracy protesters in running clashes following the clearance of part of a nearby street the previous day. "They would really swing their batons around ... I am scared, but I still have to come out and keep Nathan Road," said Szeto Sai-kit, a 21-year-old activist on the frontline.
Several thousand police were deployed after a court ordered the reopening of a blocked street in Mong Kok that has been the scene of some of the most violent confrontations in the two-month long "Occupy Central" civil disobedience campaign.
The pro-democracy movement is showing signs of splintering, with radical voices calling for escalated action after nearly two months of stalemate in their campaign for full democracy.
In August, Beijing offered the people of Hong Kong, which reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, the chance to vote for their own leader in 2017, but said only two to three candidates could run after getting majority backing from a 1,200-person"nominating committee" stacked with Beijing loyalists.
More than 100,000 people took to the streets at the peak of the protests, but numbers have dropped to a few hundred scattered in tents over three main sites amid dwindling public support.