Pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong have brought parts of the city center to a standstill. Police have used tear gas to disperse crowds calling for more political freedom from Beijing.
Tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters on Sunday surrounded a government enclave and blocked streets in central Hong Kong in an escalation of the demonstrations that the city has experienced over the past days.
Police used tear gas for the first time during the protests and baton-charged a crowd blocking a key road.
Police also used pepper spray on demonstrators trying to break through a police blockade designed to stop people joining the crowds who have staged a sit-in outside Hong Kong's government headquarters since Friday.
Demonstrators, many wearing goggles and plastic wrap to protect themselves against pepper spray, blocked traffic on Harcourt Road, a major throughway, as well as sections of several other roads in the financial district. At least 29 police and civilian have been injured in clashes.
The escalation in protest actions by pro-democracy supporters comes after a week of student-led demonstrations against Beijing's refusal to grant the city fully democratic elections in 2017.
China's legislature last month ruled that candidates for the election of Hong Kong's leader would first be vetted by a committee of Beijing loyalists that has up to now chosen who governs the former British colony. Many see the ruling as running counter to promises by China that the elections would be carried out on the basis of "universal suffrage."
'Occupy' joins the fray
On Saturday evening, the activist group Occupy Central announced it would be launching its long-threatened campaign to shut down the city's financial center three days earlier than planned, in an apparent bid to use the momentum gained by the student-led protests over the past week.
The group is calling on Beijing to withdraw last month's decision and for it to allow a consultation on political reform to start anew.
A police statement issued late on Saturday reiterated that the demonstration near the government complex was "unlawful." A spokesperson for China's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office said the central Chinese government fully supported Hong Kong's treatment of protesters "in accordance with the law."
Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying has pledged "resolute" action against Occupy Central and other pro-democracy activists.
China took over Hong Kong from British colonial rule in 1997 under an agreement that foresaw a "one country, two systems" principle, allowing Hong Kong relative autonomy until 2047. Beijing critics fear that the political freedoms granted to the city until now are being eroded under increasing influence from the Chinese mainland.
tj/glb (Reuters, AP, AFP)