HONG KONG - Hong Kong police on Wednesday arrested Joshua Wong and Lester Shum, two of the student leaders at the heart of pro-democracy protests that have shaken the Asian financial hub since August, and began swiftly clearing a major demonstration site.
Riot police scuffled with protesters trying to resist attempts to force them off the streets of the gritty Mong Kok district following clashes overnight, Reuters witnesses said.
Hundreds of protesters remained on Nathan Road, at the heart of the protest site in Mong Kok, brandishing yellow banners and chanting for "full democracy" in the former British colony, but were pushed back by the large number of police. After about two hours most of the protesters' tents had been removed. "You can't defeat the protesters' hearts!" screamed Liu Yuk-lin, a 52-year-old protester in a hard hat holding a yellow umbrella, the symbol of the protest movement, as she stood before lines of police in helmets and goggles.
Mong Kok has been a flashpoint for clashes between students and mobs intent on breaking up the protests, which have posed one of the biggest challenges to China's Communist Party leaders since the crushing of a pro-democracy movement in Beijing in 1989.
Earlier, court-appointed bailiffs had warned protesters to leave and around 80 workers in red caps and "I love Hong Kong"T-shirts began clearing metal and wooden barricades laid across Nathan Road, where hundreds of tents had been erected in a two-month civil disobedience campaign. "If you resist you face possible imprisonment. We warn you to immediately stop resisting," said a policeman into a loud hailer before jeering activists.
Scuffles and swearing broke out as police moved in, and several protesters who resisted were hauled away, witnesses said.
A Reuters witness saw police take away Shum, and the Facebook page of the student group Scholarism announced that Wong had also been arrested. Although the protests have had no formal leadership structure, Wong and Shum were part of a group of college and high school students who many looked to as the movement's de facto leaders.
Overnight, police had arrested 80 pro-democracy protesters in running clashes following the clearance of part of a nearby street the previous day. "They would really swing their batons around ... I am scared, but I still have to come out and keep Nathan Road," said Szeto Sai-kit, a 21-year-old activist on the frontline.
Several thousand police were deployed after a court ordered the reopening of a blocked street in Mong Kok that has been the scene of some of the most violent confrontations in the two-month long "Occupy Central" civil disobedience campaign.
The pro-democracy movement is showing signs of splintering, with radical voices calling for escalated action after nearly two months of stalemate in their campaign for full democracy.
In August, Beijing offered the people of Hong Kong, which reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, the chance to vote for their own leader in 2017, but said only two to three candidates could run after getting majority backing from a 1,200-person"nominating committee" stacked with Beijing loyalists.
More than 100,000 people took to the streets at the peak of the protests, but numbers have dropped to a few hundred scattered in tents over three main sites.