HONG KONG - Hundreds of Hong Kong police staged a dawn raid on Friday on one of the key sites occupied by pro-democracy protesters, removing barricades from roads and clearing out most of the demonstrators in an another setback for their movement.
The operation in the gritty working class area of Mongkok, across the harbour from the main demonstration zone near the office of Hong Kong's leader, came while many protesters were asleep in their tents.
It further reduces the number of protest sites that have paralysed parts of the Asian financial hub over the past three weeks. Police encountered little resistance, unlike recent days when there has been violent clashes during operations to clear other major roads.
The mainly student protesters have been demanding full democracy for the former British colony, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997, and calling on its leader, Leung Chun-ying, to step down.
In August, Beijing offered Hong Kong people the chance to vote for their own leader in 2017, but only among candidates selected by a screening committee filled with pro-Beijing figures.
Leung on Thursday sought to defuse tensions with demonstrators, saying he hoped the two sides could talk next week. But he also said police would clear protesters at a suitable time.
"I am so furious. The government said it would talk to the students about these issues, then it came and cleared our base," said Cony Cheung, 21, a skin care products saleswoman.
No arrests were made, said Barry Smith, a police chief superintendent on the scene, describing the operation as "fairly peaceful". About 800 officers were involved, he added.
"They've been occupying this whole area now for almost three weeks and so we decided it's time to give the public the right of way, to get the roads back and get access to pedestrians," Smith said.
Some protesters were using small trolleys to cart water, sleeping mats and medical supplies to waiting vehicles to be taken to other protest sites while authorities loaded metal barricades and belongings left behind on to small trucks.
Outspoken radio talk show host and activist Wong Yeung-tat was among those cleared away. He said police gave a short warning on loud hailers before moving in with batons and shields, although no direct force was used.
"The Hong Kong government's despicable clearance here will cause another wave of citizen protests ... We have urged protesters to maintain a kind of floating protest strategy to guard the streets so we don't feel we have to guard our positions to the end," Wong told Reuters.
The raid came just days after hundreds of police used sledgehammers and chainsaws to tear down barricades erected by protesters to reopen a major road leading in the Central business district.
A sea of colorful tents remains on a separate thoroughfare in the area, close to Leung's office.
Leung has said there is "zero chance" Beijing will give in to protesters' demands, a view shared by most political analysts and many Hong Kong citizens. He has also refused demands that he step down.
Chief Secretary Carrie Lam cancelled planned talks with student leaders earlier this month, saying it was impossible to have constructive dialogue, and it was hard to see how that could change with the two sides remain poles apart.
At its peak, 100,000 protesters had been on the streets, presenting Beijing with one of its biggest political challenges since it crushed pro-democracy demonstrations in and around Tiananmen Square in the Chinese capital in 1989.
Those numbers have dwindled significantly.
China's Communist Party leaders rule Hong Kong under a "one country, two systems" formula that gives the city wide-ranging autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China, with universal suffrage an eventual goal.
They are concerned calls for democracy in Hong Kong, and in the neighbouring former Portuguese-run colony of Macau, could spread to the mainland, threatening their grip on power.