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.