BY CLARE BALDWIN AND JAMES POMFRET
(Reuters) - Hundreds of Hong Kong police staged their biggest raid yet on a pro-democracy protest camp before dawn on Friday, charging down student-led activists who have held an intersection in one of their main protest zones for more than three weeks.
The operation in the gritty and congested Mong Kok district, across the harbor from the heart of the civil disobedience movement near government headquarters, came while many protesters were asleep in dozens of tents or beneath giant, blue-striped tarpaulin sheets.
The raid was a gamble for the 28,000-strong police force in the Chinese-controlled city who have come under criticism for aggressive clearance operations with tear gas and baton charges and for the beating of a handcuffed protester on Wednesday.
Storming into the intersection with helmets, riot shields and batons at the ready from four directions, the 800 officers caught the protesters by surprise. Many retreated without resisting.
Video of the action posted on Twitter by Tom Grundy (@tomgundy)
"The Hong Kong government's despicable clearance here will cause another wave of citizen protests," said radio talk-show host and activist Wong Yeung-tat, who wore protective goggles over his white-rimmed glasses and sported a boxer's sparring pad as a shield.
The protesters, led by a restive generation of students, have been demanding China's Communist Party rulers live up to constitutional promises to grant full democracy to the former British colony which returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
The police sweep of the protest camp had been expected for several days. It reduced the number of protest sites that have paralyzed parts of the Asian financial hub since September 28, but could rekindle defiance.
"We have urged protesters to maintain a kind of floating protest strategy to guard the streets," said Wong, flanked by protesters who stared down advancing lines of uniformed police.
Police gave a short warning on loud hailers before moving in although no direct force was used, witnesses said.
Calm returned through the rest of Friday though the number of protesters was expected to swell at the main protest site, in the central Admiralty district, as students finish classes for the week.
"Here is the base of the resistance," media magnate Jimmy Lai told Reuters, referring to Admiralty.
"If they want to quit here they have to arrest people. I think this will be the end game," said Lai, an outspoken critic of Beijing who has backed pro-democracy activists through his publications and donations.
In August, Beijing offered Hong Kong people the chance to vote for their own leader in 2017, but said only two to three candidates could run after getting backing from a 1,200-person "nominating committee" stacked with Beijing loyalists.
The protesters decry this as "fake" Chinese-style democracy and demand Beijing allow open nominations.
The raid came less than 24 hours after Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying proposed talks next week with student leaders.
Barry Smith, one of several senior British police chiefs - a legacy of the pre-1997 Royal Hong Kong Police - commanding the operation, described it as "fairly peaceful". About 800 officers were involved, he said, and no arrests were made. There were no reports of injuries.
"We decided it's time to give the public the right of way, to get the roads back and get access to pedestrians," said Smith as he paced about the area, directing front-line officers.
Yellow dump trucks with pneumatic backhoes and claws later cleared away smashed wooden pallets, garbage cans, ripped tents and metal barricades, while the scattered belongings of protesters were loaded on to trucks.
Cleaners ripped down democracy posters and notes pasted on walls and street signs, and used cleaning fluid and razors to scrape away stickers on the windows of an HSBC bank.
Some protesters tried to save some of the protest art that has appeared across protest zones.
"These drawings represent the voice of the people. We must try to preserve them and I hope in future they establish a democracy museum," one said.
Police said they would allow protesters to occupy a section of the heavily trafficked Nathan Road, which leads down to the harbor, with the famous view of Hong Kong Island opposite.
Earlier this week, police had used sledge-hammers and chainsaws to tear down concrete, metal and bamboo barricades to reopen a major road feeding the Central business district.
Despite the clearances, about 1,000 protesters remained camped on Hong Kong Island in a sea of tents and umbrellas on an eight-lane highway beneath skyscrapers.
Leung has said there is "zero chance" Beijing will give in to protesters' demands, a view shared by many observers and Hong Kong citizens. He has also refused to step down.
The Hong Kong Association of Banks called on Friday for an end to help Hong Kong preserve its competitiveness and maintain investor confidence.
At the peak of the protests, 100,000 had been on the streets, presenting Beijing with one of its biggest political challenges since it crushed pro-democracy demonstrations in and around Tiananmen Square in the Chinese capital in 1989.
Those numbers have dwindled significantly.
China rules Hong Kong under a "one country, two systems" formula that gives the city wide-ranging autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China, with "universal suffrage" stated as the eventual aim.
It is concerned calls for democracy in Hong Kong, and in the neighboring former Portuguese colony of Macau, could spread to the mainland, threatening the party's grip on power.
(Additional reporting by Bobby Yip, Jon Gordon; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree, Farah Master and James Pomfret; Editing by Nick Macfie and Robert Birsel)
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