Carlos Barria / Reuters

Hong Kong police dismantle pro-democracy protesters' barricades, tents

Traffic moves freely on a main HK thoroughfare after two weeks of protests demanding more political freedom

Hundreds of Hong Kong police used sledgehammers and chainsaws to dismantle pro-democracy protesters' barricades near government offices and the city's financial center on Tuesday, a day after clashes broke out as anti-protest groups tried to reclaim roads.

The police action reopened one of the city's main thoroughfares to traffic, including school and tour buses.

Still, protesters blocking one main artery, Lung Wo Road, brought out more barriers in defiance of police, Hong Kong's South China Morning Post newspaper reported.

Also Tuesday, lawmakers reportedly submitted questions to Hong Kong security chief Lai Tung-kowk amid allegations that police have used excessive force against protesters.

Legislators from the Civic Party, which has on numerous occasions voiced support for the movement, asked Lai about the use of tear gas at the onset of the protests, and about what the party has charged was the police's slow response to violent attacks on the protester by opponents, the South China Morning Post said.

The police operation was the latest in two days to dismantle barricades after two weeks of protests, with the stalemate fueling frustrations in the Asian financial hub and draining public support for the pro-democracy movement.

Police, criticized for using tear gas and batons in the early days of the protests, have adopted a more patient approach, counting on protesters to come under public pressure to clear some of the city's major arteries.

By opening the road, police may have defused what was gearing up to be a tense Wednesday. Taxi drivers, who say business has dropped by around 50 percent during the pro-democracy protests, had threatened to remove the barricades themselves if they were not cleared them by then. Taxi and truck drivers were among those who tried to dismantle barricades on Monday.

Hundreds of people dismantled barricades and scuffled with protesters on Monday after police removed some barriers to relieve traffic congestion.

Police say the removal of barricades is aimed at easing congestion and that protesters can stay, but many students said they believed Monday's clashes were coordinated and involved triad criminal groups and people paid to cause trouble. They said some police stood by or did not act quickly enough.

Student protesters reinforced barricades late on Monday, erecting bamboo scaffolding 13 feet high along one major thoroughfare, while others mixed concrete to pour over the foundations of their roadblocks. Makeshift spears made of bamboo protruded from some of the barricades.

On Tuesday, police with chainsaws cut down the towering bamboo structures and used sledgehammers to smash cemented barricades outside the Hong Kong headquarters of the Bank of China.

Scores of office workers streamed out onto the streets to watch as police tore down the barricades in front of the upscale Pacific Place shopping mall near the heart of the financial district. 

"We will rebuild them after the police remove them," said protester Bruce Sze. "We won't confront the police physically."

Outside the Lippo Centre in the Admiralty district, a driver of one of the city's ubiquitous red taxis shouted angrily at the protesters that they were making it impossible for him to make a living.

The crowd responded by singing "Happy Birthday", which has become the movement's signature way of diffusing tense situations.

Protesters, mostly students, are calling for full democracy and have demanded the city's embattled leader, Leung Chun-ying, step down after Beijing in August ruled out completely free elections for Hong Kong's next leader in 2017.

China rules Hong Kong under a "one country, two systems" formula that accords the former British colony a degree of autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed in China, with universal suffrage set as an eventual goal.

Leung vowed on Sunday to remain in office and warned that there was "zero chance" that China's leaders in Beijing would change an August decision limiting democracy in Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, five press unions late on Monday issued a statement condemning harassment against them.

Apple Daily, controlled by media magnate Jimmy Lai, a key supporter of the democracy movement, said the entrance to its offices was blocked, preventing distribution, and its website paralyzed for two days.

A spokeswoman at the International New York Times told Reuters on Tuesday that the distribution of its newspaper had also been disrupted due to a blocked road at the compound of Apple Daily, where it is printed.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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