HONG KONG – An angry crowd of people opposed to pro-democracy protests that have paralyzed parts of Hong Kong for more than two weeks tried Monday to charge barricades used by the demonstrators, clashing with police as they attempted to storm the protest zone.
Dozens of police officers held back several hundred people gathered in front of barricades on a main road, as the crowd chanted
“Open the road!”
Some in the crowd tried to remove the metal barricades that protesters, most of them university students, have set up to block off main roads near the heart of the city’s financial district. They also shouted “Occupy Central is illegal,” referring to one of the names of the pro-democracy movement that has swept Hong Kong.
Taxi drivers joined in, some driving their cabs up to the barricades and leaning on their horns to express their anger about the traffic disruptions.
Officers urged the crowd to stay calm as they tried to keep them separated from the protesters on the other side. Police took away some masked men inside the protest zone who tried to pick fights with the protesters.
Protester Alex Kwok said he received a scratch on his arm after he was attacked by several men whom he accused of being members of triads, or organized crime gangs.
The tension later eased as the most of the crowd dispersed.
“Before the police came, young men wearing masks and dark clothing came to pick fights with people and we heard that some of them had weapons,” said Kevin Ng, a college student who was at the scene saw the scuffles. “I don’t know who the young men wearing masks were. We suspect they’re triad members but it’s hard to say. What other kind of group would organize themselves to come attack us?”
Demonstrators have flooded the city’s streets since Sept. 28 in a civil disobedience movement opposing restrictions on the territory’s inaugural 2017 election for its top leader. They want authorities to drop a plan to use a pro-Beijing committee to screen candidates in the election.
They also want Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, the city’s Beijing-backed leader, to resign.
Speaking to reporters at an event in Guangzhou, southern China, Leung stressed that the authorities have handled the protests with a “huge degree of tolerance.” He dodged a question about when officers will move in to clear the protests, only saying: “We cannot let this situation continue in the long-term.”
Leung also said: “I will not resign, and I don’t have to resign.”
The confrontation came after police removed some barricades on the outer edge of the protest zone earlier in the day to allow some traffic through the area.
Police stressed that the operation _ carried out at dawn when the number of protesters on the site is typically at its lowest _ was not meant to clear the area, and said it was only to relieve traffic congestion as commuters returned to work. However, protesters suspected other motives.
Tens of thousands of protesters have occupied busy roads outside the city government headquarters as well as in two busy shopping districts elsewhere to press their demands but their numbers have since dwindled.