Arrests as Hong Kong Police Clear Protesters From Buildings; Protests Remain in Square

hong kong protests
A protester reacts as she is dragged away by police after storming in government headquarters in Hong Kong September 27, 2014. Bobby Yip/Reuters

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong riot police used pepper spray to disperse protesters around government headquarters on Saturday, fuelling tension ahead of a planned sit-in by pro-democracy activists to oppose Beijing's tightening grip on the city.

Clashes through the night between police carrying riot shields and scores of demonstrators underscore the challenges China faces in Hong Kong as a restive younger generation challenges its influence in the former British colony.

Several people suffered minor injuries.

The protesters got into the city's main government compound late on Friday by forcing their way through a police cordon and scaling perimeter fences in the culmination of a week-long rally to demand free elections.

They were removed one by one, some of them carried away, according to witnesses. On Saturday, hundreds were still sitting near the compound close to Hong Kong's financial district.

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Riot police scuffle with pro-democracy students after hundreds of protesters stormed into a restricted area at the government headquarters Tyrone Siu/Reuters

"The police have used disproportionate force to stop the legitimate actions of the students and that should be condemned," said Benny Tai, one of the three main organizers of the pro-democracy Occupy Central movement.

Police arrested 61 people in the clearance operation, including 48 men and 13 women.

Several thousand protesters had massed on streets outside the headquarters in the early hours of Saturday in support of those who had stormed inside, shouting "retreat, retreat, retreat" as police advanced and tried to stop them charging.

Many protesters used umbrellas to shield themselves from the pepper spray. Those who got hit used water to rinse their eyes.

"I paid my highest respect to every soldier who defends till the last moment… Civil disobedience - it continues to happen," said student leader Lester Shum on his Facebook page.

Hong Kong returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997 under a formula known as "one country, two systems", with a high degree of autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China. Universal suffrage was set as an eventual goal.

But Beijing last month rejected demands for people to freely choose the city's next leader in 2017, prompting threats from activists to shut down the Central financial district in a so-called Occupy Central campaign. China wants to limit elections to a handful of candidates loyal to Beijing.

Student activists urged people to gather on Saturday night for fresh demonstrations.

SIX PEOPLE ARRESTED

Leaders of the local Occupy movement arrived to show their support for the protests. They plan to blockade the financial district on Oct. 1, a holiday, hoping it will escalate into one of most disruptive protests in Hong Kong for decades.

The clashes were the most heated so far in a series of anti-Beijing protests. Police arrested six people overnight, including teenage student leader Joshua Wong, who was dragged away by police, kicking, screaming and bleeding from his arm, after he called on the protesters to charge the government premises.

"Hong Kong's future belongs to you, you and you," Wong, a thin 17-year-old with dark-rimmed glasses and bowl-cut hair, told cheering supporters before he was taken away.

"I want to tell C.Y. Leung and Xi Jinping that the mission of fighting for universal suffrage does not rest upon the young people, it is everyone's responsibility," he shouted, referring to Hong Kong's and China's leaders.

"I don't want the fight for democracy to be passed down to the next generation. This is our responsibility."

The protest came after more than 1,000 school pupils rallied peacefully to support university students demanding democracy, capping the week-long campaign that has seen classroom strikes and a large cut-out paraded in public depicting the city's leader Leung as the devil.