HONG KONG — Hong Kong riot police battled with thousands of pro-democracy protesters for control of the city's streets Saturday, using pepper spray and batons to hold back defiant activists who returned to a protest zone that officers had partially cleared.
Police and activists engaged in running clashes in Mong Kok's dense grid of streets, scuffling for hours. Several protesters were seen knocked to the ground, and dozens were carried or taken away by police.
The government said some 9,000 people gathered at the scene, repeatedly charging police lines in an attempt to retake roads. Authorities said police arrested 26 people.
Protesters are pressing for a greater say in choosing the semiautonomous Chinese city's leader in an inaugural direct election, promised for 2017.
Students and activists oppose Beijing's ruling that a committee stacked with pro-Beijing elites should screen candidates in the election. That effectively means that Beijing can vet candidates before they go to a public vote.
One protester was seen bleeding from his forehead as he was carried to a police van, moments after he was forced to the ground by officers. In scenes repeated throughout the evening, officers used batons to beat back umbrellas used by the crowd of young protesters to defend themselves from pepper spray.
"The police have lost control. They are beating up protesters like we're animals. We are angry. The students are our future," said Tommy Lee, a 45-year-old technology worker who was outraged at seeing police handcuff four protesters who appeared to be high school students.
Also detained was Bangkok-based Getty photojournalist Paula Bronstein, who was hauled away by police for standing on the hood of a Mercedes-Benz amid the melee. Hong Kong's Foreign Correspondents Club issued a statement demanding her immediate release, saying that police have threatened and intimidated other journalists covering the protests.
The chaotic scenes unfolded hours after police had moved in to clear tents, canopies and barricades at Mong Kok, a smaller protest zone across Victoria Harbor from the main occupied area in the heart of the financial district.
Mong Kok's protest zone had been home to a rowdier, more radical crowd less willing to follow student leaders, making it the most volatile of the three areas occupied since Sept. 28 by Hong Kong democracy protesters.
The dawn operation — the third in recent days by police to retake streets from protesters — came after Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying sought to defuse the bitter standoff with the protesters on Thursday by reviving an offer of talks over democratic reforms in the city.
However, Leung warned that police wouldn't refrain from clearing protest sites while holding talks. The latest clashes were likely to make it harder to resolve the crisis with protesters, who were already angered by a video of a group of officers kicking a handcuffed activist.
Joanna Chiu contributed to this report. Follow Sylvia Hui on Twitter at twitter.com/sylviahui