Hong Kong police have arrested four men as tensions once again flared after a small group of protesters broke into the city’s legislature through a side door.
The arrests on Wednesday came a day after court bailiffs managed to clear part of a protest camp in the heart of the city that has been occupied by demonstrators for nearly two months, while leaving most of the main protest site intact.
About 100 riot police with helmets, batons and shields stood guard outside the government building in the early hours of Wednesday, facing off with protesters who are demanding free elections for the city's next leader in 2017.
"Police retreat!" the protesters chanted.
It was the first time protesters had broken into a key public building, defying the expectations of many political analysts who had predicted that Hong Kong's most tenacious and protracted protest movement would slowly wind down.
The escalation came in the early hours of Wednesday when a small group of protesters charged towards the legislature and used metal barricades and concrete tiles to ram a glass side door. They eventually smashed through, with several managing to get inside, according to witnesses.
Fernando Cheung, a lawmaker, said he and other protesters had tried to stop the small group of radical activists from breaking through. "This is a very, very isolated incident. I think it's very unfortunate and this is something we don't want to see happen because the movement so far has been very peaceful," he said.
The violence apparently involved protesters who organized their action through an Internet forum known to attract people with radical views. The clashes underscore mounting frustration for some as the movement drags on for more than 50 days with no end in sight, though student leaders immediately distanced themselves from the violence.
"We can't agree with the reason for taking this action," said Joshua Wong, the 18-year-old leader of Scholarism, one of two student groups leading the protests.
Cheung and other pro-democracy lawmakers condemned the violence, saying it undermined the non-violent civil disobedience movement.
The demonstrations centered around the nomination of candidates for Hong Kong’s first elections to select a chief executive. Earlier this year, China endorsed the 2017 vote, but rejected calls to allow citizens the ability to directly nominate the candidates. China, instead, said that candidates would be picked by a pro-Beijing committee made up of 1,200 members — a decision some pro-democracy commentators said would render the vote “meaningless.” The decision is something protesters view as a violation of the city’s constitution, or “Basic Law,” which says Hong Kong would ultimately get “universal suffrage.”
The demonstrations gained widespread popular support initially, but recently, the students have been fighting to maintain momentum as the Hong Kong government appears to adopt a strategy of standing by in hopes the movement will gradually lose momentum.
Al Jazeera and wire services