HONG KONG - Hong Kong student leaders have called off talks with the government aimed at bringing an end to mass pro-democracy rallies, accusing police of failing to act over violent attacks on their protest camps by opposition crowds that included Beijing supporters.
Ugly scenes in several districts Friday saw protesters who had staged a peaceful week-long sit-in left injured and bloodied after groups of angry opponents, some waving Chinese flags, started clashes while police struggled to maintain control.
Hong Kong's main student union said it was walking away from negotiations after police appeared to ignore what it claimed was orchestrated violence carried out by paid thugs from "triad" criminal gangs sent to stir up trouble.
"There is no other option but to call off talks," said the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS), one of several groups driving a campaign for free elections that has brought tens of thousands of people onto the streets of the semi-autonomous Chinese city.
"The government and police turned a blind eye to violent acts by the triads targeting peaceful Occupy protesters," the union added, referring to Occupy Central, another prominent group.
Hong Kong's embattled leader Leung Chun-ying, facing calls to resign but firmly backed by Beijing, had promised students talks with a top civil servant in an attempt to end the stand-off that has posed the most serious challenge to China's ruling Communist Party in years.
Human rights group Amnesty International late Friday blasted police who it said "stood by and did nothing" to protect protesters, saying it had first-hand witness accounts of women being physically attacked in the densely packed shopping districts of Causeway Bay and Mong Kok.
"The police inaction tonight is shameful. The authorities have failed in their duty to protect peaceful protesters who came under attack," said Mabel Au, director of Amnesty International Hong Kong.
Protesters pointed to their contrasting treatment by police on Sunday night which saw pepper spray and tear gas fired at the peaceful crowds.
"The police are so unfair, these people attack us and they do nothing," Jenny Cheung, a demonstrator, told AFP. "We protest peacefully and the police use tear smoke and pepper spray, when we are attacked the police do nothing."
Police defend response
Police said there had been two arrests and defended their response to the chaotic scenes, with senior superintendent Kong Man-keung telling reporters the force had "deployed a lot of manpower to control the situation". But protesters were furious at the relative lack of arrests, saying pro-Beijing thugs had been freely allowed to attack their camps.
Crowds in Mong Kok chanted "Bring out the handcuffs!" late into the night.
Police officers were seen escorting a man from the scene with his face covered in blood. There were widespread allegations of sexual assault in the densely packed crowds, with three girls wearing plastic rain ponchos seen being bundled into a police van in tears after apparently being assaulted at the Causeway Bay protest.
"I urgently want to express to all citizens, no matter what attitude you have towards Occupy (Central), you still have to remain calm, and not use violence or disrupt order under any situation," Leung said in a televised message.