Hong Kong police have been forced to deny they had any connection to criminal gangs suspected of inciting attacks on peaceful demonstrators after harrowing images of intimidation and violence emerged yesterday.
Friction between pro-democracy protesters and opponents of their weeklong occupation of major Hong Kong streets persisted Saturday as student protesters urged supporters to turn out again in the evening to show their solidarity.
READ MORE: Hong Kong Pictures Show Rage Meeting Defiance As Ugly Clashes Break Out Over Pro-Democracy Protests
"The more suppression by the government, the more resistance by the people," Joshua Wong, the 17-year-old student leader told protesters gathered under a steady drizzle.
Police arrested 19 people during a night of running brawls in which at least 12 people and six officers were injured. Eight men were believed to have backgrounds linked to triads, or organised crime, said Senior Superintendent Patrick Kwok Pak-chung.
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Officials vehemently denied rumours they might have coordinated with the gangs to clear the streets.
"Such rumours linking us to 'black societies,' are utterly unfair," Hong Kong's visibly agitated security chief, Lai Tung-kwok, told reporters.
Cheung Tak-keung, the deputy police superintendent, said the police were trying their best to maintain "buffer zones" between people of opposing views.
"The situation was not easy to handle. There were thousands of people," Cheung said, noting that many of those gathered were just onlookers who could get caught up in a "very high risk activity."
"We strongly condemn all violent acts," he said, cautioning people to avoid such areas because "unsettled people's emotions may cause more confrontations."
But as the images below show, Hong Kong's protesters still have a long way to go in their battle for democracy.
The confrontations, mostly in the gritty, blue-collar Mong Kok district, led protest leaders to call off planned talks with the government on political reforms. Students and other activists object to China's decision to require a committee of mostly pro-Beijing figures screen candidates for the city's first-ever election of its top leader in 2017. They are also demanding the resignation of the current chief executive, Leung Chun-ying.
With the talks suspended, the next steps in the crisis were uncertain. Police have repeatedly urged protesters and their opponents to clear the streets for the sake of public order, but have shown tolerance after the earlier attempt to disperse the protesters just drew more people into the streets.
The standoff in Mong Kok, across Victoria Harbour from the activists' main protest encampment, continued Saturday after a tense night when hundreds of supporters of the protesters gathered to protect them.
Kwok said those arrested were facing charges of unlawful assembly, fighting in public and assault. On Saturday, the situation remained tense as the anti-protest groups regrouped in Mong Kok, at times chanting "Pack Up!" at the protesters.
The opponents of the demonstrations are using blue ribbons to signal their support for the mainland Chinese government, while the protesters are wearing yellow ribbons. At least some opponents of the protests are residents fed up with blocked streets and related inconveniences.
Some people on the "blue ribbon" side rallied in Kowloon's waterfront Tsim Sha Tsui. "Love Hong Kong" and "Support Police" they chanted, holding up flags and heart-shaped signs with the slogan, "Alliance in support of our police force."
"Now the students are trying to control the government," complained a man who gave only his first name, Jackie. "If there was a riot on Wall Street in America they wouldn't tolerate such troublemaking."
The Hong Kong Federation of Students, one of the groups leading the protests that drew a peak crowd of tens of thousands of people earlier in the week, said they saw no choice but to cancel the dialogue they had agreed to after Leung proposed talks. They demanded the government hold someone responsible for the scuffles Friday, the worst disturbances since police used tear gas and pepper spray to try to disperse the protesters the weekend before.
The allegations that organised crime members were involved in the clashes fuelled jitters Saturday at the movement's main camp, on a highway outside government headquarters.
"Many people are gathering here and they are very determined to unite against the triad members," said Amy Ho, 21, who was studying translation at university.
On social media, an image circulated purportedly calling on people in the "silent majority" to gather and agitate the protesters in Mong Kok for 300 Hong Kong dollars ($38), promising bonuses for extra destruction. The information could not be verified and calls to a mobile phone number listed on the notice did not go through..