Hong Kong student leaders on Friday called off talks with the government aimed at bringing an end to mass pro-democracy demonstrations that have paralysed the city, after violent clashes broke out with opposing crowds at their protest camps.
Hong Kong's main student union walked away from negotiations after angry opponents, some waving Chinese flags, began tearing down their tents and barricades in what activists said was orchestrated violence by paid thugs from "triad" criminal gangs.
"There is no other option but to call off talks," said the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS), one of several groups driving a campaign for free elections that has brought tens of thousands of people onto the streets of the semi-autonomous Chinese city.
"The government and police turned a blind eye to violent acts by the triads targeting peaceful Occupy protesters," the union added, referring to Occupy Central, another prominent protest group.
Hong Kong's embattled leader Leung Chun-ying had promised students talks with government in a bid to clear the protesters, who have brought swathes of the city to a standstill by filling major thoroughfares.
The clashes marked a sudden spike in tensions after days of peaceful protests.
There were angry scenes in the packed Mong Kok and Causeway Bay shopping districts as pro-democracy demonstrators faced off with large crowds of opponents, with police struggling to keep the situation under control.
"Some of them are triad members for sure," protester Eric Leung said of the group of men that clashed with crowds in Causeway Bay as they attempted to dismantle the protest camp, wearing surgical masks to cover their faces.
"Everyone is angry and afraid -- but being afraid is not the answer," the 38-year-old told AFP.
Protesters take rest at a main road in the financial central district after riot police use tear gas against them as thousands of people blocked the road in Hong Kong. (AP Photo)
Sexual assault claims
Police said there had been two arrests and defended their response to the chaotic scenes, with senior superintendent Kong Man-keung telling reporters the force had "deployed a lot of manpower to control the situation".
But protesters were furious at the relative lack of arrests, saying pro-Beijing thugs had been freely allowed to attack their camps. Crowds in Mong Kok chanted "Bring out the handcuffs!" late into the night.
Police officers were seen escorting a man from the scene with his face covered in blood.
There were widespread allegations of sexual assault in the densely packed crowds, with three girls wearing plastic rain ponchos seen being bundled into a police van in tears after apparently being assaulted at the Causeway Bay protest.
"I urgently want to express to all citizens, no matter what attitude you have towards Occupy (Central), you still have to remain calm, and not use violence or disrupt order under any situation," Leung said in a televised message.
The opposition crowds ebbed away into the night, leaving about 5,000 protesters chanting for the resignation of Leung, who they view as a pro-Beijing stooge.
While the United States, Europe and Japan have all expressed their concern at the scenes playing out in the key Asian financial hub, China's Communist authorities insisted Friday there is "no room to make concessions on important principles".
The protests were triggered by China's announcement in August that while Hong Kongers can vote for their next leader in 2017, only candidates vetted by Beijing will be able to stand -- a decision dismissed as "fake democracy" by campaigners.
Pro-democracy demonstrators rest after a night of protesting at a rally outside the Hong Kong government headquarters. (AFP Photo)
'Beat them to death'
Demonstrators had set a deadline of midnight Thursday for Leung to resign and for Beijing to abandon the proposals to vet candidates.
Leung refused to quit, but in a dramatic televised appearance shortly before the deadline he appointed his deputy to sit down with the HKFS, which has been at the vanguard of the protests.
Mistrust was rife that Leung was merely trying to buy time in the hope that the campaign will lose momentum, with Hong Kong residents tiring of the disruption caused by the mass sit-ins.
Friday's clashes broke out as the city returned to work after a two-day public holiday.
"I don't support Occupy Central. We have to work and make money. Occupy is just a game," said a construction worker who gave his name as Mr Lee.
"Give us Mong Kok back, we Hong Kongers need to eat!" yelled another man removing the barricades there.
Individuals from both sides pushed and shoved each other as water bottles were thrown, and one anti-Occupy protester chanted: "Beat them to death, good job police!"
Protesters take cover from tear gas fired by police during riots that followed a pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong. (AFP Photo)
Shop owners have told of a massive downturn in business after days of demonstrations.
"I supported (the pro-democracy activists) at first but when they escalated their action, they have gone too far," said Janice Lam, 54, an onlooker in Causeway Bay.
Hong Kong Finance Secretary John Tsang warned that if the unrest persists, the city's status as one of the world's most important trading hubs could be under threat.
"If this situation were to persist we're going to see some damage to our system," he told a press conference.
He added that extended protests could seriously dent "confidence in the market system in Hong Kong -- that would bring permanent damage that we could not afford".