CHAOS erupted in central Hong Kong when groups of men set upon Occupy Central protesters in Admiralty on Monday afternoon, forcibly removing barricades in a short-lived clearance as protesters set up new ones later in the day.
There appeared to be two separate groups working together in the removal: thuggish-looking young men cordoned off by police officers donning the vests of the anti-triad force; and elderly men who drove into the area in taxis. Arrests have been made.
Police were seen rounding up the first group and even chasing some into the Admiralty MTR station. Another group was questioned on the steps of Lippo Centre.
At Queensway in front of the Bank of China Tower, police formed a cordon between students and the opponents of the protest movement and shouting matches erupted.
"Beasts!" yelled the taxi drivers.
"Not opening!" responded the student protesters, in reference to the road.
Taxi associations have complained about the impact of the sit-in on their business, saying that the long detours resulting from road blockades have affected the number of passengers they can pick up and their earnings.
It was not known if the suspected triad members were hired or went there of their own volition.
"I am here to ask them to leave! How many days have they been here? They have blocked our home, affect our normal life! I am very angry!" said a 70-year-old retiree who wanted to be known only as Uncle Man.
"How about we occupy these protesters' home? How would they feel?"
The old man, wearing a t-shirt with the emblem "Hong Kong: Our Home" T-shirt - a government funded campaign last year, lives in Kowloon but went to Admiralty with a few friends.
He said he received a message from a friend, asking him and others to go to Admiralty at 1pm on Monday to stage the action.
The clash came hours after police said they removed some barricades in Admiralty and Mong Kok to ease traffic, adding that the operation was not to clear out the sites where a pro-democracy movement entered its 16th day.
The police cleared the barricades on Harcourt Road in Admiralty to open up a route to the nearby Tamar government offices.
Using a megaphone, they said they were "just reclaiming part of government equipment", referring to the barricades.
Scores of student protesters sat down in a line at Harcourt Road facing off with a cordon of police officers who were not wearing riot gear. While some tried to re-erect the barricades, the atmosphere seemed calm in the area.
In a press briefing on Monday, police refuted allegations that they were working with triad members to clear the streets. Hong Kong police spokesman Steve Hui said three men aged 18 to 47 have been arrested so far in the clashes. One of them is accused of assault while two others are suspected of being in possession of weapons, according to Ming Pao.
Across the harbour in Mong Kok, police also removed barricades at the junction of Argyle Street and Shanghai Street, enabling five lanes to reopen to traffic, according to local broadcaster RTHK. Protesters had earlier allowed the junction of Argyle and Portland Street to reopen.
The locations where barriers were removed included the vicinity of Des Voeux Road Central and Chater Road in Central, and the vicinity of Argyle Street and Shanghai Street in Mong Kok.
But shortly after barricades were removed in Admiralty, protesters got back to work again, setting up new barricades with bamboo poles, wooden planks and rubbish bins.
The Occupy Central movement along main roads in Admiralty, Mong Kok and Causebay entered its 16th day on Monday. From its peak of tens of thousands of protesters, the crowd size has dwindled significantly. Although the rallies on recent evenings had drawn several thousands of people, only dozens camped out overnight in tents pitched on the roads.
On Sunday, Chief Executive Officer Leung Chun Ying characterised the protests as a "mass movement that had spiralled out of control" and sought to firmly close the door on any hopes that the protesters' demands could be met.
The protesters want Beijing to rescind its Aug 31 rules on the chief executive election, public nomination for the position, and Mr Leung's resignation. There is "almost zero chance" that these can be met, said Mr Leung.