Hong Kong police clear protest zone

Hong Kong police clear protest zone
Police began removing barricades this week

Riot police cleared a Hong Kong pro-democracy protest zone in a dawn raid, taking down barricades, tents and canopies that have blocked key streets for more than two weeks.

Hundreds of officers, some in helmets and shields, descended on the busy district of Mong Kok, a smaller protest zone across the Victoria Harbour from the main occupied area in the city's financial district.

But the key thoroughfare in Admiralty, near the heart of the city's financial district, remained occupied by protesters.

The dawn operation was the third in recent days by police to retake streets from protesters.

It came hours after Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying sought to defuse a bitter stand-off with student-led democracy protesters by reviving an offer of talks over democratic reforms in the city.

Police surrounded about 30 protesters, who did not put up resistance. There were no clashes between the two sides, but several activists lay down on the street after the operation and refused to budge.

Officers swiftly tore down metal barricades, bamboo and wooden planks used by protesters to block off the streets, and much of the protest zone was cleared in about half an hour.

Mr Leung said yesterday the protests, which have disrupted traffic in key roads and streets in three business districts since September 26, could not go on indefinitely.

Protesters are pressing for a greater say in choosing the semi-autonomous Chinese city's leader in an inaugural direct election, promised for 2017.

Tensions have escalated in the past few days as riot police armed with pepper spray and batons clashed with activists.

Hundreds of police scuffled with protesters as they fought for control for a road near the city's government headquarters on Wednesday.

Many in Hong Kong condemned police after officers were seen kicking a handcuffed protester and dragging dozens of others away.

Mr Leung said government is ready to meet with student leaders as soon as next week, but urged them to be pragmatic, reiterating that Beijing will not change its mind on election restrictions.

That raised doubts that the proposed meeting can overcome the vast differences between the two sides.

Students and activists oppose Beijing's ruling that a committee stacked with pro-Beijing elites should screen candidates in the territory's first direct election. That effectively means Beijing can vet candidates before they go to a public vote.

Alex Chow of the Hong Kong federation of students welcomed Mr Leung's offer but criticised the government for setting preconditions.

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