Hong Kong arrested 19 people, some believed to have organized crime ties, during a night of running brawls stretching into Saturday as mobs tried to drive pro-democracy protesters from the streets where they’ve held a weeklong, largely peaceful demonstration.
At least 12 people and six officers were injured during the clashes, Senior Superintendent Patrick Kwok Pak-chung said. Protest leaders called off planned talks with the government on political reforms after the battles kicked off Friday afternoon in gritty, blue-collar Mong Kok, across Victoria Harbor from the activists’ main protest camp.
Police struggled for hours to control the battles as attackers pushed, shoved and jeered the protesters. Those arrested face charges of unlawful assembly, fighting in public and assault, Kwok said, adding that eight men are believed to have backgrounds involving triads, or organized crime gangs.
The protesters urged residents to join their cause and demanded that police protect their encampments. The Hong Kong Federation of Students, one of the groups leading the demonstrations that drew tens of thousands of people earlier this week, said they saw no choice but to cancel the dialogue.
“The government is demanding the streets be cleared. We call upon all Hong Kong people to immediately come to protect our positions and fight to the end,” the group said in a statement.
They demanded the government hold someone responsible for the scuffles, the worst disturbances since police used tear gas and pepper spray on protesters last weekend to try to disperse them.
“Of course I’m scared, but we have to stay and support everyone,” said Michael Yipu, 28, who works in a bank.
The allegations that organized crime members were involved in the clashes fueled jitters Saturday at the movement’s main camp, on a highway outside government headquarters. There were frequent calls for supporters to rush to barricades after sporadic rumors that people were coming to attack them.
“Many people are gathering here and they are very determined to unite against the triad members,” said Amy Ho, 21, who was studying translation at university.
The standoff is the biggest challenge to Beijing’s authority since it took over the former British colony in 1997. Earlier Friday, the students had agreed to talks with the government proposed by Hong Kong’s leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. But his attempt to defuse tensions fell flat as many protesters were unhappy with his refusal to yield to their demands for his resignation.
The cancellation of the talks — prompted by clashes with men who tried to tear down the makeshift barricades and tents set up by the demonstrators — left the next steps in the crisis uncertain.
It was unclear if those scuffles were spontaneous or had been organized, although some of the attackers wore blue ribbons signaling support for the mainland Chinese government, while the protesters have yellow ribbons.
On social media, an image circulated purportedly calling on people in the “silent majority” to gather and agitate the protesters in Mong Kok for 300 Hong Kong dollars ($38), promising bonuses for extra destruction. The information could not be verified and calls to a mobile phone number listed on the notice did not go through. Protesters also accused police of working together with triads to use force to attack them, but police denied it.
At least some of those opposed to protesters were residents fed up with the inconvenience of blocked streets and closed shops.
“It’s not about whether I support their cause or not. It’s about whether what they are doing is legal or not,” said Donald Chan, 45. “It is illegal. It has brought chaos to the city.”
The chaos prompted calls from police and other top officials for everyone to avoid violence and go home.
“We should not use violence or disrupt social order in any situation,” Leung said. “All people gathering in those areas should disperse as soon as possible and restore social order, so that daily lives will be restored to normal.”
The protesters have been in the streets since Sept. 26, pledging to preserve Hong Kong’s Western-style legal system and civil liberties. They want the Chinese government to reverse a decision requiring all candidates in the first election for Hong Kong’s leader in 2017 to be approved by a mostly pro-Beijing committee. The demonstrators want open nominations.
Leung had appeared at a news conference late Thursday night where he refused to resign and said he had asked Hong Kong’s top civil servant, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, to engage in talks with protest leaders. Before those talks were called off Friday by the students, Lam said she had begun organizing the discussions.
China’s government has mostly kept quiet during the crisis, other than to call the protests illegal and support the Hong Kong government’s efforts to disperse them. On Friday, the Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily accused a small group of demonstrators of trying to “hijack the system” and said the protest effort was doomed to fail.
The front-page editorial said there is “no room for concessions” on the candidate screening issue, noting that Hong Kong “is directly under the jurisdiction of the central government; it is not a country or an independent political entity.”
____Hong Kong AP
Associated Press writers Elaine Kurtenbach and Kelvin Chan contributed to this report.