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HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong pro-democracy activists recaptured parts of a core protest zone from police early on Saturday after hours of turmoil that the city’s police chief warned undermined order and jeopardized public safety.
Dozens of people were injured in the skirmishes, including 18 police, which raged through the night as several thousand protesters squared off again police in the densely populated Mong Kok district.
At least 33 people were arrested, Hong Kong public broadcaster RTHK reported.
Police used batons and pepper spray, and scuffled violently with activists, but they were eventually forced to pull back less than 24 hours after they re-opened most of the area to traffic.
The protests have been going on for three weeks and pose one of the biggest political challenges for China since the crushing of pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing in 1989.
Hong Kong Police Commissioner Andy Tsang broke three weeks of public silence to say his force had been “extremely tolerant” but had failed to stop protesters becoming more “radical or violent”.
“To these protesters, you may think that your illegal acts have prevented the police in going about our duties, disrupted our deployments and even forced us to retreat, ” Tsang told a news conference.
“Superficially, that may be the case. But let me tell you this: these illegal acts are undermining the rule of law, undermining (what) Hong Kong has been relying on to succeed.”
After police retreated, demonstrators swiftly stacked up barricades made out of packing crates and fences. Tsang said the reoccupation of the area “seriously undermined public order and seriously jeopardized public safety”.
The protesters, led by a restive 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.
Hong Kong is ruled under a “one country, two systems” formula that allows the thriving capitalist hub wide-ranging autonomy and freedoms and specifies universal suffrage for Hong Kong as an eventual goal.
But Beijing ruled on Aug. 31 it would screen candidates who want to run for the city’s chief executive in 2017, which democracy activists said rendered the universal suffrage concept meaningless. The protesters are demanding free elections for their leader.
‘WE WILL STAY’
The clashes came just hours after Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leader Leung Chun-ying offered talks to student leaders next week in an attempt to defuse the protests that have grabbed global headlines with scenes of clashes and tear gas rising between some of the world’s most valuable office buildings.
Leung’s chief secretary, Carrie Lam, announced on Saturday that between student leaders and the city government would take place for two hours on Tuesday.
The Mong Kok area was calm later on Saturday with the number of protesters much smaller as activists rested. Police stood in formation away from the barricades.
Posters declaring “Reclaim Mong Kok!” had been plastered on shop fronts. The protesters who remained were bracing for another bruising night.
Student Angel So, 20, said she was determined to stop police clearing the area again. “We’ll keep coming back, ” she said, as a friend, Terry Leung, nursed grazes on his arms and legs from scuffles with police.
Joshua Wong, a bookish 18-year-old whose fiery speeches have helped drive the protests, was defiant.
“We will stay and fight till the end, ” he told Reuters as he surveyed the crowd during the night, from on top of a subway station exit.
The escalation in the confrontation illustrates the dilemma faced by police in trying to strike a balance between law enforcement and not inciting the protesters who have been out since late last month in three core shopping and government districts.
Besides Mong Kok, about 1, 000 protesters remained camped out on Hong Kong Island in a sea of tents on an eight-lane highway beneath skyscrapers close to government headquarters.
Despite Leung’s offer of talks next week, few expect any resolution without more concrete concessions from authorities.
(Additional reporting by Lawrence White, Twinnie Siu and Diana Chan; Writing by James Pomfret and Greg Torode; Editing by Robert Birsel)