HONG KONG - Chaos erupted in central Hong Kong Monday as dozens of masked men rushed barricades at the city's main pro-democracy site, sparking renewed accusations that authorities are using hired thugs to disperse demonstrators.
Groups of men, many wearing surgical masks, descended on the front lines of the rally at Admiralty near Hong Kong's central business district, triggering clashes with protesters, just hours after police had moved in to take down some barriers.
Demonstrators, who have come under attack from organised crime gangs known as triads at another flashpoint demonstration site in Mongkok, shouted: "Weapons! Weapons!" and "Arrest the triads" as police struggled to impose order.
Pro-democracy lawmakers rounded on the authorities over the clashes.
"This is one of the tactics used by the communists in mainland China from time to time. They use triads or pro-government mobs to try to attack you so the government will not have to assume responsibility," Democratic Party lawmaker Albert Ho told AFP.
"It seems that the police have duly removed some of the barricades to make way for the suspected triads to get through to the peaceful protesters," Civic Party lawmaker Claudia Mo told AFP.
One lawmaker on the scene of the clashes in Admiralty voiced concern over how the situation had "degenerated".
"From what I can see the police were helping the anti-Occupy actions more than the peaceful protesters," said the Civic Party's Kenneth Chan.
Taxi drivers had also converged on the site with their cars, demanding the barricades be removed and other anti-Occupy groups chanted "Occupy is illegal".
Anti-Occupy protesters mainly dissipated as the afternoon wore on, while pro-democracy demonstrators rebuilt their barricades using everything from bamboo poles to sticky tape.
But as police announced they would soon move to clear more "obstacles" at both the Admiralty site and a secondary site in the shopping hub of Causeway Bay.
"We will not eliminate the possibility of using minimal force or arrest actions," police senior superintendent Hui Chun-tak told reporters.
He said that three men had been arrested, one for assault and two for carrying offensive weapons.
The demonstrators are calling for Beijing to grant full democracy to the former British colony and have brought parts of Hong Kong to a standstill over the last fortnight, prompting clashes with elements who oppose the blockades and widespread disruption.
Despite repeated orders to disperse, the rallies have taken on an air of permanence, with tents, portable showers and lecture venues.
It was the second time since the mass protests began that authorities had been accused of cooperating with criminal gangs.
In previous clashes at the secondary site of Mongkok 10 days ago, police said eight of the 19 arrested had triad backgrounds.
Furious pro-democracy protesters also accused the authorities of using thugs Monday.
"The government wants Hong Kong people to fight each other, that's how they want to win," protester Angela Li said.
"All the people using violence and causing trouble are paid thugs." Police said that the clashes were due to "people unlawfully blocking the roads with obstacles".
Earlier Hong Kong's embattled leader Leung Chun-ying had told reporters in the Chinese city of Guangzhou that he wanted the protests to end.
"Under the appropriate situation we hope to allow society to return to normal as quickly as possible," he said on the sidelines of a trade meeting.
Police 'do what they want'
Police took down some peripheral barricades in a dawn operation allowing traffic to pass around the Admiralty site for the first time in two weeks as well as removing several barriers around the Mongkok site.
The overall atmosphere had been calm, but some protesters voiced anger at what they saw as a police swoop.
"The police refuse to communicate with us, they just do what they want," added Wong King-wa, 25.
On Sunday, Chief Executive Leung had said the protesters had "almost zero chance" of changing Beijing's stance and securing free elections.
China announced in August that while Hong Kongers will be able to vote for Leung's successor in 2017, only two or three vetted candidates will be allowed to stand - an arrangement the protesters dismiss as "fake democracy".
Students and pro-democracy campaigners have taken to the streets - sometimes in their tens of thousands - since last month to call for Beijing to change its position and to demand Leung's resignation.
Talks between student leaders and city officials collapsed last week, deepening the crisis in the semi-autonomous city.
Chinese police detained two Beijing activists who took part in a Hong Kong pro-democracy march, a friend said Monday.
China has in recent weeks held around 40 people on the mainland who had expressed support for the protests in Hong Kong, according to rights groups.