Thousands rally in Hong Kong as police arrest pro-democracy protesters

Occupy Central movement joins student demonstrators and kicks off pro-democracy civil disobedience protest

Tens of thousands of people massed in the heart of Hong Kong late on Saturday to demand more democracy, as tensions grew over Beijing's decision to rule out free elections in the former British colony.

Riot police iearlier on Saturday arrested dozens of students who stormed the government headquarters compound to protest China's refusal to allow genuine democratic reforms in the semiautonomous city.

Hundreds of other protesters, however, showed no sign of leaving the area next to a courtyard in the government complex that the students had entered and chanted at police to release their colleagues. The standoff between pro-democracy protesters and authorities is dragging on into a second night as a steady stream of supporters arrived at the demonstration zone throughout the day.

The dispersal followed a night of scuffles between police and about 150 protesters who forced their way into the government compound, some scaling a tall fence. Police on Friday night responded with pepper spray to push them back, but about 50 had remained inside the gated premises by early Saturday afternoon, when police moved in to clear them out.

At least 29 people have been injured and 61 arrested since Friday night, police said.

Hong Kong Secretary for Security Lai Tung-kwok told reporters that police acted appropriately and gave students sufficient warning before starting the process of clearing the square.

The scuffles came at the end of a weeklong strike by students demanding China's Communist leaders organize democratic elections in 2017. Thousands of university and college students who had spent the week boycotting classes were joined Friday by a smaller group of high school students.

Tensions over Hong Kong's political future have risen significantly since control of the former British colony passed to China in 1997.

China's leaders have promised universal suffrage for the city, but last month ruled out letting the public nominate candidates, instead insisting they be screened by a committee of Beijing loyalists.

Hong Kong's young people have become vocal supporters of full democracy in recent years, fueled by anger over widening inequality and Beijing's tightening grip on the city.

"We really want real democracy, so we'll stay here and fight to get what we want," said Jo Tai, a 28-year-old teacher. "We don't want everyone else to decide our future; we want the right to decide our future for this generation and the next generation." She and others said they were prepared to be arrested.

Protesters chanted slogans such as "Fight to the end" and "Free the protesters" and carried placards calling for civil disobedience. Volunteers passed out donated goggles and umbrellas to protect against police pepper spray, while others used plastic wrap and surgical masks for protection. 

Organizers said those arrested at government headquarters included Joshua Wong, a 17-year-old leader of the activist group Scholarism, who was dragged away by four officers. Wong, a recent high school graduate, gained prominence two years ago after he organized protests that forced Hong Kong's government to back off plans to introduce a Chinese national education curriculum that some feared was a form of brainwashing.

Protesters kick off blockade

The student protest was organized independently of Occupy Central, an alliance of pro-democracy activists that had planned to blockade Hong Kong's financial district to call for genuine democratic reforms.

The group, which planned to launch its blockade on Wednesday, changed course Saturday following the police crackdown and announced that they would be joining with the students, according to the South China Morning Post.

Benny Tai, a key leader of the Occupy Central movement, made the announcement to protesters overnight outside the government headquarters.

“I’ve got a long-awaited message. Occupy Central will start now,” Tai declared to protesters.

Occupy Central had planned to gather 10,000 volunteers to block streets on Wednesday, China's National Day holiday.

Failure on the part of the government to address political reform would lead to escalation of their actions, Tai was quoted as saying by the South China Morning Post.

Tai told reporters that the group would "stay with the students until the end and risk getting arrested ourselves." 

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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