Updated at 12:55 p.m. ET
Hong Kong's main democracy groups called off planned talks with the territory's government after several hundred pro-Beijing demonstrators attacked activists who have staged a week of protests calling for greater freedom.
Occupy Central, one of the main groups organizing protests against Beijing's effort to tightly control the selection of Hong Kong's leader, tweeted today:
As we reported Thursday, Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung, speaking at a news conference Thursday, said he would stay in the job but appointed his deputy, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, to meet with protesters to discuss "constitutional development."
But hours later, as the South China Morning Post reports, "A group of mostly male anti-Occupy protestors appeared to be taking commands from a middle-aged Putonghua-speaking [Mandarin-speaking] woman wearing a face mask using a loud hailer at the junction of Argyle Street and Nathan Road [in Mong Kok district]. The thin line of police separating opposing sides was stretched to breaking point, and finally gave way shortly after 5pm. Soon after more police arrived as the tense stand-off continued."
Mong Kok, located on Kowloon Peninsula, is one of three main protest areas, which also include the central Admiralty area and Causeway Bay on Hong Kong island.
The Associated Press describes the counterprotesters as Hong Kong residents and pro-Beijing supporters.
NPR's Anthony Kuhn, reporting from Mong Kok, says there's a lot of anger and shouting and that police have established a human chain "to escort Occupy Central protesters to safety.
"It's been a very tense scene for the past several hours," he says.
Anthony spoke to several of the anti-Occupy protesters: "Most of these people tend to be businessmen. They say they want democracy in Hong Kong too, but they think the way the Occupy Central people are going about it is the wrong way."
It was not immediately clear whether the attack on the protesters was spontaneous or part of a coordinated effort to break up the demonstrations, but student activists issued a statement calling them "organized attacks" and threatened to call off the planned dialogue with authorities if the government did not immediately stop the assaults.
The New York Times notes:
"The Mong Kok area is notorious for organized gangs known as triads that extort payments from the many small businesses there, or indeed own the businesses, and some of the protesters suggested that the men were connected to them. Asked if he was a member of such a group, another man who joined in tearing down the tents there, Steve Lin, 48, responded: 'I'm not a triad. I'm a Hong Konger.' "
The AP says: "The scuffles in Kowloon's crowded Mong Kok district were the most chaotic since police used tear gas and pepper spray on Sunday in an unsuccessful attempt to disperse protesters pressing for greater electoral reforms."
"Police were hard-pressed to keep order as the two sides tussled in a tense standoff. The visibly older people trying to force the vastly outnumbered protesters out were yelling, shoving and at times trying to drag the younger protesters away."
Elsewhere, in Causeway Bay, locals angered by the days of protests that brought the neighborhood to a halt confronted pro-democracy protesters. Three men were "shouting loudly, using vulgar language against protesters." Later, the SCMP says, "[an] organised group of about 30 men wearing masks broke through Hennesy Road and reached Jardine's Bazaar and began removing barricades there."
Occupy Central protesters were angered that police did not stop the attack on their camp, some chanting "shame on you" at officers, the newspaper says.
In Admiralty, where some of the largest protests have taken place, Ian Mo, 28, tells the Post that he had been planning to join the demonstrations but changed his mind after seeing the violence.
"The atmosphere here in Admiralty has changed a lot. The people here were so peaceful over the past few nights," Mo said. "People feel angry because of tonight's violence and are standing up again."
Mo said he had walked past protests in Mong Kok and seen the violence there. "There were some police standing by in the crowd but they simply did nothing," he told the SCMP.
On Friday, Hong Kong Financial Secretary John Tsang urged the Occupy Central protesters to consider the long-term interest of the territory. According to a government website:
"Speaking to the media today, Mr Tsang said everyone - protesters, Police officers and every citizen of Hong Kong - felt exhausted by the current events. Many in society feel deeply worried about the current situation."He said he was also worried that violence incidents might happen, especially after watching the conflicts in Mongkok."Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.