Hong Kong security forces clashed with protesters on Wednesday as they pushed ahead with the clearance of one of the main pro-democracy occupations which have been clogging city streets for weeks, an aggressive two-day operation which has seen some 150 arrests.
Student leaders Joshua Wong and Lester Shum were arrested during the scuffles in Mong Kok, a busy shopping district on the Kowloon Peninsula. CS spray was deployed and riot police charged activists resisting the removal, the most violent effort to clear the streets since tear gas was used against protesters in September.
Police finally managed to complete the clearance of the site, but around midnight, thousands of protesters regrouped and again challenged security forces for control of the streets, attempting to block the recently re-opened roads. As the night wore on, their numbers dwindled to around 1,000, some of them occupying a 50-meter stretch of a side street, police looking on with batons at the ready.
The protests, now 60 days old, were prompted by China's insistence that candidates for Hong Kong's next chief executive must be approved by a Beijing-backed committee, a move critics say will allow it to screen out troublesome individuals.
The operation to remove the Mong Kok camp began on Tuesday, with some roads cleared and protesters firmly penned into their main Nathan Road stronghold by lines of police with shields and helmets. Police also used a new and highly effective dispersal tactic: firing CS spray indiscriminately from pump-action hoses from moving podiums.
Scuffles went on until into the early hours.
Police have denied using excessive force to remove the protesters. Video via YouTube/hkpchannel
At 10am on Wednesday, a group of around 50 workers gathered near the protest's main barricade, wearing identical red baseball caps and "I heart HK" t-shirts.
The authorities' plan was that these workers would cut away the barriers, supported by court bailiffs, who in turn were backed by thousands of police officers. They were enacting a court injunction for the clearance, won by local transport companies.
But the strategy — intended to provide distance between police and protesters — was abandoned within minutes, when the workers began engaging in angry scuffles with protesters and police intervened.
It was during these scuffles what Mr Wong, the 18-year-old co-founder of the Scholarism campaign group, and Mr Shum, from the Hong Kong Federation of Students, were arrested.
A police officer told the crowd: "You must immediately stop your obstruction, otherwise you may be arrested and prosecuted." A moment later riot police entered the site, causing protesters to scatter, some donning hard hats and goggles, while others hastily gathered together their belongings and tents.
Many passers-by, critical of the occupations, jeered at the protesters as they went.
When the tear spray guns re-emerged, protesters, many tired from the lengthy conflict the night before, retreated slowly. A phalanx of police officers closed in behind the guns, dismantling campsites and tearing down signs as they went, until the crowd was forced to leave the site. A crane truck was used to gather and dispose of whatever the protesters left behind.
By around 12.30pm, police had taken back control of the site. Authorities said 159 people were arrested during the operation, 66 of them on Wednesday, for offences including unlawful assembly and assaulting or obstructing police. Nine police officers were injured.
But as evening approached, many protesters vowed a pushback.. At 7pm local time further clashes broke out, after police tried to disperse a small group accused of illegal assembly.
As a melee built up, officers with riot shields charged activists standing in the road, as business owners pulled down shutters on nearby shopping streets.
Dean Sheng, a 23-year-old student, said he was ready to stay at the site all night, but added that the protesters still had no agreed plan.
He said: "We don't know what we strive for or what we will get. But if they can fool us with fake democracy, we'll never get a real one."
In a statement, the Hong Kong Federation of students condemned the clearance, saying: "The court order has become a political cover to allow (the police) to do whatever they want."
One of those cleared from the site was Jordan Ho, who works in electronics and is a regular at the occupation. He condemned how quickly the police took over what was notionally the bailiffs' job, saying the manner of the clearance showed "the police are willing to do whatever they want in order to clear the occupiers."
Some protesters called for an escalation of civil disobedience. One told VICE News it was important to keep police busy "to keep Admiralty safe," a reference to the main camp on Hong Kong Island, the birthplace of the movement in the city's political and financial hub.
All was calm there on Wednesday afternoon. But the government has clear designs on clearing that — and the other at nearby Causeway Bay — in the coming days and weeks.