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Hong Kong tensions rise as police use pepper spray on protesters to clear road

Hundreds of Hong Kong police used pepper spray on pro-democracy protesters in the early hours of Wednesday to clear a major road that had been barricaded with concrete slabs, heightening tensions in the financial hub - PHOTO: AFP

[Hong Kong] Hundreds of Hong Kong police used pepper spray on pro-democracy protesters in the early hours of Wednesday to clear a major road that had been barricaded with concrete slabs, heightening tensions in the financial hub.

The clashes were the worst in over a week between police and largely student protesters, who late on Tuesday swarmed into a tunnel on a key four-lane thoroughfare, halting traffic and chanting for universal suffrage.

Large numbers of police forced the crowds back, spraying pepper spray at those who resisted. "We're peaceful. We just want democracy. Why are you doing this," one female protester yelled.

Several protesters were wrestled to the ground and taken away. Scores of other officers then entered the tunnel in the Admiralty district and began clearing away makeshift walls formed from concrete slabs, partially reopening the tunnel to traffic.

Protesters have been demanding full democracy for the former British colony, but their two-week campaign has caused traffic chaos and fuelled frustration in the Asian financial centre, draining public support.

China rules Hong Kong under a "one country, two systems" formula that accords the city a degree of autonomy and freedom not enjoyed in mainland China, with universal suffrage an eventual goal.

Beijing said on Aug 31 that only candidates that get majority backing from a nominating committee stacked with Beijing loyalists would be able to contest a full city-wide vote to choose Hong Kong's next leader in 2017.

Earlier on Tuesday, police used chainsaws and sledge-hammers to clear blockades on another major road in Admiralty.

But hundreds of protesters then stormed into the nearby tunnel, catching authorities by surprise.

The tunnel on Lung Wo Road, an important east-west artery near the offices of the Hong Kong government and legislature had been intentionally left open by demonstrators to traffic.

Despite the reopening of two major thoroughfares to ease what police said was traffic congestion, there was no immediate sign the core protest zone outside government headquarters - where hundreds of tents remain pitched on an eight-lane highway - would be cleared.

Many pro-democracy demonstrators were defiant in the area around the tunnel, guarding the entrance until they were forced back by a cordon of riot and uniformed police, some bearing shields. "Get back. Get back," the police shouted as they manhandled students and ripped away umbrellas used to guard against pepper spray.

Protesters had earlier erected a gravestone in the middle of Lung Wo Road for Hong Kong's embattled leader Leung Chun-ying."Even hell won't welcome you" read an epitaph on the makeshift headstone.

The pro-Beijing leader said this week there was "zero chance" China's leaders would give in to protesters' demands and change the August decision limiting democracy. The protesters want Leung to step down.

The Hong Kong and Beijing governments have called the protests illegal. Some of the city's most powerful tycoons had earlier warned that occupying the heart of the city to press for democracy could undermine stability.

They have remained largely silent since the protests began.

There had been fears of further trouble on Wednesday, with anti-protest taxi and truck drivers setting a deadline for the barricades to go. But a representative of a taxi drivers' group told Reuters on Tuesday his members had no plan for action.

Police, criticised for using tear gas and batons in the first 24 hours of the protests, have adopted a more patient approach, counting on protesters to come under public pressure to clear main arteries. In recent days, police have selectively removed some barriers on the fringes of protest sites.

The police action in the early hours of Wednesday, however, suggests official patience may be wearing thin.

The number of protesters has fallen off sharply from a peak of about 100,000, but a hardcore group of perhaps several thousand remain. "I don't think the protesters, having suffered tear gas, endured the attacks by the anti-occupy people, I don't think they will just surrender unconditionally and leave," said Joseph Wong, political analyst at the University of Hong Kong. REUTERS