HONG KONG - Tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters held a peace rally in central Hong Kong in defiance of recent attacks against their ranks, as students early Sunday re-opened the door for talks with government over their political reform demands.
Hong Kong's main student union, which had called off the negotiations saying police failed to act over the violent clashes, said it would meet with the government on the condition it responded over the police handling of the ugly scenes Friday.
"The government should show commitment in investigating the incident, investigate why the police were so lax in enforcement, accusations of helping criminals and to give an explanation to the public as soon as possible," the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) said.
The city authorities on Saturday strongly denied using paid thugs to harass the protesters.
"As long as the government responds to the above, the students are willing to talk again," HKFS said.
Pro-democracy protesters have taken to Hong Kong's streets to demand the right to nominate who can run as their next leader in 2017 elections. Beijing insists only candidates it has approved will be able to stand.
Huge crowds streamed into the main protest site opposite the besieged government headquarters for a seventh night of their campaign in the semi-autonomous Chinese city.
Tensions appeared to be ratcheting up early Sunday with reports of fresh clashes with police using batons in Mong Kok, a densely packed working-class district that saw some of the worst scenes of violence the previous night.
Two of Hong Kong's busiest shopping districts descended into chaos on Friday as angry opponents clashed with protesters, tearing down their tents and barricades.
Police said several suspected triad members were among those arrested after Friday's clashes, but the city's security chief angrily denied allegations that the government had called on paid thugs to break up the protests.
Call for peace
As night fell on the city, tens of thousands waving smartphones and singing democracy anthems chanted "Peace! Anti-violence!" as they gathered in the downtown Admiralty district near government headquarters.
"The feeling is really strong tonight. You can see people are so calm - unlike in other countries where they burn things and destroy cars," said 36-year-old protester Chris Ng.
But there were also angry accusations that the police failed to protect the demonstrators against the opposing crowds - some of whom showed up to confront them waving Chinese flags - and comparisons to the chaotic scenes last Sunday, when riot officers fired tear gas at peaceful protesters.
"The police used tear gas and pepper spray against peaceful students - but where is the tear gas and pepper spray for those who use violence against us?" protester Lau Tung-kok shouted through a loudspeaker, to cheers from the crowd.
City authorities furiously denied working with criminals to disrupt the protests.
"These accusations are made up and are very excessive," an angry Secretary for Security Lai Tung-kwok told reporters.
But pro-democrat lawmaker Albert Ho said the police "seemed to show a lot of indulgence to triad activities".
Triad gangs have traditionally been involved in drug-running, prostitution and extortion but are increasingly involved in legitimate ventures such as property and the finance industry.
Some are believed to also have links with the political establishment and there have previously been allegations of triads sending paid thugs to stir up trouble during protests.
China has accused democracy campaigners of destabilising the city. The People's Daily newspaper, a Communist Party mouthpiece, said in an editorial on Saturday that the protesters were "daydreaming" over the prospect of change.
Small rallies by crowds sporting blue ribbons were held in Hong Kong on Saturday by people who said they supported the police and the government, in a growing sign of a backlash against a campaign that has caused wide-scale disruption and taken a heavy toll on local businesses.
In a speech broadcast on television late Saturday, Hong Kong's leader said he was determined to clear the streets of protesters by Monday when the city returns to work.
"The government and the police have the duty and determination to take all necessary actions to restore social order, so that the government and some seven million people of Hong Kong can return to their normal work and life," Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said.
Fears of intimidation have replaced the festive sense of unity that had prevailed for days among protesters.
There were widespread reports of sexual assault in the packed crowds after the mood turned ugly at protests that had been noted worldwide for their civilised atmosphere.
An AFP reporter in Mong Kok on Saturday heard a female counter-demonstrator tell pro-democracy crowds through a loudspeaker: "Women are supposed to be touched by men." She spoke in Cantonese with a mainland accent.
Later a crowd of some 200 people were seen chasing a man they believed to be an anti-democracy agitator who was forced to seek protection from the police.
Journalists have also been targeted. The Hong Kong Journalists Association said it had confirmed five attacks against members of the media.