HONG KONG — Pro-democracy activists clashed with police and barricaded a tunnel near Hong Kong’s government headquarters late Tuesday, expanding their protest zone again after being cleared out of some other streets in the latest escalation of tensions in a weekslong political crisis.
The demonstrators blocked the underpass with tires, metal and plastic safety barriers and concrete slabs taken from drainage ditches.
Earlier, hundreds of police wearing helmets and holding shields and batons scuffled with the protesters in a brief, tense standoff, according to local television news.
The student-led protesters are now in their third week of occupying key roads and streets in Hong Kong’s business district. Positions on both sides have been hardening since the government called off negotiations last week.
It was not immediately clear what caused Tuesday night’s standoff. The government said some protesters suddenly rushed into a road, creating “severe traffic disruption.” Local news reports said police arrested a protester, angering some other demonstrators, who then tried to take over the tunnel in front of the government headquarters near the entrance to the office of the city’s leader.
The reports said police sent in reinforcements and used pepper spray to try to disperse the protesters but failed and retreated, leaving the tunnel in the hands of a larger crowd of protesters.
Hundreds of demonstrators cheered and clapped and raised open umbrellas into the air as the police retreated. They then began building new barricades to expand their occupied area.
Umbrellas have become a symbol of the protests after demonstrators used them to protect themselves against pepper spray and tear gas used by police in an attempt to disperse them two weeks ago.
Earlier Tuesday, police cleared some barricades from the edge of the pro-democracy protest zones, signalling authorities’ growing impatience with the activists.
Appearing to use a strategy of gradually chipping away at the three main protest areas, hundreds of police fanned out in the early hours to take down barriers that the protesters had erected overnight. Officers used electric saws and bolt cutters to remove bamboo scaffolding built in the Admiralty area after a mob of masked men stormed some of the barricades the day before.
Police also removed metal barricades from another protest camp on a road in the nearby Causeway Bay shopping area to free up a lane for traffic.
Police will continue to take down barriers set up by protesters, spokesman Steve Hui said. He said officers arrested 23 men in Monday’s violent clashes, when masked men and taxi drivers led a crowd of several hundred who tried to charge the protest zone.
The police operations over the past two days follow the government’s abrupt cancellation of talks scheduled last Friday with the activists, citing the unlikelihood of a constructive outcome given their sharp differences.
The protesters want Hong Kong’s deeply unpopular Beijing-backed leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, to resign. They also want the Hong Kong government to drop plans for a pro-Beijing committee to screen candidates for the inaugural election to choose his replacement.
Leung has said there is “almost zero chance” that China’s government will change its rules for the election, promised for 2017.
The demonstrations have posed an unprecedented challenge to the government. Organizers say as many as 200,000 people thronged the streets for peaceful sit-ins after police used tear gas on Sept. 28 to disperse the unarmed protesters.
Numbers have since dwindled and the remaining demonstrators, sensing that the earlier actions were aimed at testing their defences, braced Tuesday evening for possible further police moves to clear out their protest camps.
Beijing is eager to end the protests to avoid emboldening activists and others on the mainland seen as a threat to the Communist Party’s monopoly on power.