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HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hundreds of Hong Kong police staged their biggest and boldest raid yet on a pro-democracy protest camp before dawn on Friday, charging down student-led activists who have held a key intersection in one of the main protest zones for more than three weeks.
The operation in the gritty and congested Mong Kok district – across the harbor from the heart of the civil disobedience movement near government headquarters – came while many protesters were asleep on the asphalt in dozens of tents or beneath giant, blue-striped tarpaulin sheets.
The raid was a gamble for the 28, 000-strong police force in the Chinese-controlled city who have come under criticism for mounting aggressive clearance operations using tear gas, baton charges and a violent beating of a handcuffed protester by seven policemen on Wednesday.
Storming into the intersection with helmets, plastic riot shields and batons at the ready from four directions, the deployment of 800 officers caught the protesters by surprise. Many retreated without resisting.
“The Hong Kong government’s despicable clearance here will cause another wave of citizen protests, ” said radio talk show host and activist Wong Yeung-tat, who donned protective goggles over his white-rimmed glasses and sported a boxer’s sparring pad on his arm as a makeshift shield.
The police sweep of the protest camp in Mong Kok had been expected for several days. It further reduces the number of protest sites that have paralyzed parts of the Asian financial hub since September 28, but could reignite retaliation.
“We have urged protesters to maintain a kind of floating protest strategy to guard the streets, ” said Wong, flanked by protesters who stared down advancing lines of uniformed police.
Police gave a short warning on loud hailers before moving in although no direct force was used, witnesses said.
The protesters, led by a restive younger generation of students, have been demanding China’s Communist Party rulers live up to constitutional promises to grant full democracy to the former British colony which returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
In August, Beijing offered Hong Kong people 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 1200-person “nominating committee” stacked with Beijing loyalists.
The protesters decry this as “fake” Chinese-style democracy and demand Beijing allow open nominations for a fairer poll.
The raid came less than 24 hours after Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying tried to buy time by resurrecting talks next week with the student leaders.
“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, a beauty products saleswoman clad in a yellow construction hard hat and an industrial-strength face mask.
Barry Smith, one of several senior British police chiefs – a legacy of the pre-1997 Royal Hong Kong Police – commanding the operation, described it as “fairly peaceful”. About 800 officers were involved, he added, and no arrests were made. There were no immediate reports of injuries.
“They‘ve been occupying this whole area now for almost three weeks, so we decided it’s time to give the public the right of way, to get the roads back and get access to pedestrians, ” said Smith as he paced about the area, directing front-line officers.
Yellow dump trucks with pneumatic backhoes and claws later cleared away debris including smashed wooden pallets, garbage cans, fences, ripped tents and metal barricades, while the scattered belongings of protesters were loaded on to trucks.
Elderly cleaners ripped down democracy posters and notes coating walls, windows and street signs, using cleaning fluid and razors to scrape away stickers stuck to the windows of an HSBC bank branch.
Some remaining protesters tried to salvage some of the hand-drawn protest artwork that have mushroomed across protest zones.
“These drawings represent the voice of the people. We must try to preserve them and I hope in future they establish a democracy museum to keep these voices at this historic moment, ” one said.
Some protesters used trolleys to cart water, sleeping mats and medical supplies to a nearby park, but later moved supplies back with police saying they’d allow protesters to continue to occupy a section of the heavily trafficked Nathan Road, which leads south down to the harbor, with the world-famous view of Hong Kong Island opposite.
“The occupation here hasn’t finished yet, ” said Simon Siu, a protest logistics coordinator. “People will come back.”
A steady trickle of protesters returned to the bare site.
The raid came just days after violent scuffles between police and protesters who attempted to blockade a major road near government headquarters on Hong Kong Island.
Police had also used sledgehammers and chainsaws to tear down concrete, metal and bamboo barricades to reopen a major road feeding the Central business district.
Despite the clearances, perhaps 1, 000 protesters remained camped on Hong Kong Island in a sea of tents and umbrellas on an eight-lane highway beneath glass and steel skyscrapers.
Leung has said there is “zero chance” Beijing will give in to protesters’ demands, a view shared by many observers and Hong Kong citizens. He has also resolutely refused to step down.
Chief Secretary Carrie Lam canceled planned talks with student leaders last Thursday, saying it was impossible to have constructive dialogue, and it was hard to see how that could change with the two sides poles apart.
At the peak of the protests, 100, 000 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 rules 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” stated as the eventual aim.
It is concerned calls for democracy in Hong Kong, and in the neighboring former Portuguese colony of Macau, could spread to the mainland, threatening the party’s grip on power.
(Additional reporting by Bobby Yip; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree and James Pomfret; Editing by Nick Macfie)