HONG KONG - Hong Kong riot police used pepper spray to disperse protesters around government headquarters on Saturday, fuelling tension ahead of a planned sit-in by pro-democracy activists to protest against Beijing's tightening grip on the city.
Clashes through the night between police carrying riot shields and demonstrators underscore the challenges China faces in shaping its vision for Hong Kong's political future as a restive younger generation challenges its influence in the former British colony.
Several people suffered minor injuries.
They were removed one by one, with some carried away, according to witnesses. Many protesters were still sitting outside the government compound on Saturday.
"The police have used disproportionate force to stop the legitimate actions of the students and that should be condemned," said Benny Tai, one of the three main organizers of the pro-democracy movement.
Hundreds of students and demonstrators had forced their way past a police cordon and scaled perimeter fences at government headquarters, close to Hong Kong's financial district, on Friday in the culmination of a week-long rally to demand free elections in the Asian financial centre.
Police carried signs that read "stop charging or we use force".
Several thousand protesters massed on streets outside the headquarters in support of those who had stormed inside, shouting "retreat, retreat, retreat" as police advanced and tried to stop them charging.
Many protesters used umbrellas to shield them from pepper spray, while those who got hit used water to rinse their eyes. "I paid my highest respect to every soldier who defends till the last moment ... civil disobedience, it continues to happen,"student leader Lester Shum said on his Facebook page.
Hong Kong returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997 under a formula known as "one country, two systems", with a high degree of autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China. Universal suffrage was set as an eventual goal.