A SWIFT police operation cleared a section of Nathan Road of protesters on Wednesday morning, with student leaders Joshua Wong and Lester Shum arrested. The road was opened to traffic at 12.30pm, to both cheers and boos from protesters and members of public.
At noon, just over 100 defiant protesters were corralled by the police on both sides of the junction between Nathan Road and Dundas Street. Police issued a warning that a second operation would soon begin.
In the morning, with little warning, a phalanx of riot police led the charge, pushing against the protesters and shouting at them to step back. The police cut away cords binding metal barricades to clear part of Nathan Road, at the heart of the protest site in the Mong Kok district, and started dismantling marquees and tents used by the protesters. They warned the protesters to stay clear or they would use pepper spray.
It was a much tougher and more aggressive clearance operation, compared to previous operations when the police stepped back and court bailiffs allowed time for protesters to clear the site themselves.
The protesters, even as they rushed to pack their items, shouted "we want genuine universal suffrage!", while asking the police to give them some time.
Student protest leaders Joshua Wong of Scholarism, and Lester Shum from the Hong Kong Federation of Students, were arrested, according to the Facebook accounts of the two student groups.
Wong and Shum are among a small group of students at the heart of the pro-democracy protests that have blocked major thoroughfares in the Asian financial hub since the end of August.
The operation on Wednesday is to clear Nathan Road in accordance to a court order obtained by taxi driver associations for the road to be reopened after two months of occupation.
It comes after clashes between the police and protesters the previous day when the nearby Argyle Street was cleared.
On Wednesday morning, the 200m section of Nathan Road from Arygle Street to Dundas Street was cleared within an hour, with police officers, cleaners and cranes moving in.
As one officer climbed up a lamppost to remove a giant yellow banner spelling out "I want genuine universal suffrage", police officers on the ground cheered.
Shopkeeper W. C. So, who runs a slipper shop along the road, watched the exercise with "relief", saying his business had been affected the past two months. Sales had fallen by half, he said.
Protester Icy Chow, 19, a student driven out by the police, said that they were mulling their options.
"As last resort, we will go to Admiralty," she told The Straits Times.
The clearance on Wednesday was the third since the high court granted injunctions to let authorities start clearing parts of the protest sites.
Tensions were running high the day after the police used pepper spray on pro-democracy protesters in Mong Kok, which has been the scene of some of the most violent clashes since the sit-ins began on Sept 28.
The police said they had arrested 116 people, including a 14-year-old boy, after Tuesday’s clashes. Twenty police officers were injured, the police added.
The police had also arrested a television news crew member who was covering the clearance of the site, the Hong Kong Journalists Association said, condemning the arrest.
The clearance comes as public support wanes for the pro-democracy demonstrators, who are protesting against China’s restrictions on who will be allowed to stand in the 2017 chief executive election. They have been camped out on Hong Kong’s streets for almost two months to demand fully free elections.