HONG KONG - Hong Kong police sprayed pro-democracy protesters Tuesday and made more than 30 arrests as they moved in to clear a city street blocked by demonstrators for nearly two months.
Officers in helmets, with some carrying batons, faced off against dozens of protesters at the site in Mongkok district, the scene of some of the most violent clashes between demonstrators and authorities since the sit-ins began in three locations on September 28.
A police spokesman was unable to confirm what officers were spraying, as protesters complained of being burned by the substance. Officers at the scene described it as "tear spray".
"I couldn't open my eyes," a demonstrator surnamed Mok told AFP. "I was wearing long sleeves but my arms are hurting."
Another, who gave his name as Yiu, said the substance was "much stronger than pepper spray" used on earlier occasions by police.
"You are already participating in an illegal assembly, right now the police order you all to immediately disperse," officers told protesters over loudspeakers before firing the spray at them from elevated platforms.
Demonstrators donned goggles or raised umbrellas to protect themselves.
Police arrested 32 people earlier in the day when protesters refused to leave after workers tore down their barricades on Argyle Street in Mongkok.
Authorities said those arrested, including veteran lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung, were detained for contempt of court and assault on police.
The youngest was a 14-year-old boy, said a lawyer working for the protesters.
"I am not going to move. I will let them arrest me," 78-year-old Ng Pun-tuk, wearing a helmet, told AFP earlier as he joined the crowd of protesters watched by dozens of bailiffs and more than 100 police.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to achieve democracy. I am prepared to go to jail," said Ng.
The Mongkok site is the second to be partially cleared since the high court in the semi-autonomous Chinese city granted injunctions to let authorities start dismantling sections of the three protest camps.
The court injunction for Tuesday only covered Argyle Street. Police are expected to begin clearing busy Nathan Road in Mongkok on Wednesday morning, reports said.
Demonstrators are protesting at China's restrictions on who will be allowed to stand in elections for the city's next leader in 2017.
Still open to talks
The student-led protests drew tens of thousands of people on some occasions initially. But the crowds have shrunk as the movement has struggled to maintain momentum and commuters have grown weary of transport disruptions.
The spectacle of a small group smashing up a side entrance to Hong Kong's legislature last week has further sapped public support.
A Hong Kong University poll of 513 people last week found that 83 per cent of respondents want the road blockades to end.
China insists candidates in 2017 must be vetted by a loyalist committee -- an arrangement which protesters say will ensure the election of a pro-Beijing stooge.
Talks between protesters and senior Hong Kong officials a month ago were fruitless, with students accusing the government of failing to make any meaningful offers.
"I haven't completely closed the door on negotiations with the Hong Kong Federation of Students," the city's second highest official, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, told reporters Tuesday during a trip in Beijing.
"I really hope that we could all sit down... to talk about the future of Hong Kong's political development.
"If student representatives can concretely negotiate a mechanism where they leave voluntarily, we would welcome it," Lam said.
On Tuesday last week, government workers dismantled metal barricades blocking access to a skyscraper opposite government headquarters on the edge of the sprawling main protest camp in the central district of Admiralty.