Police in Hong Kong moved aggressively to dismantle a pro-democracy protest site in the city's congested Mong Kok district, launching a dawn raid to remove metal and bamboo barricades at one of three areas where student activists have staged rallies calling for open elections in the former British colony.

The operation to clear the protest camp after weeks of pro-government demonstrations and sit-ins "came while many protesters were asleep on the asphalt in dozens of tents or beneath giant, blue-striped tarpaulin sheets," Reuters says.

The news agency says police stormed into the intersection "with helmets, plastic riot shields and batons at the ready from four directions, the deployment of 800 officers caught the protesters by surprise. Many retreated without resisting."

Police gave a short warning on loud hailers before moving in, although no direct force was used, witnesses said, according to Reuters.

It was the third such raid in recent days by police who have sought to take back the streets from protesters.

As recently as Thursday, the government renewed an offer of talks with student activists who have called for the resignation of the territory's Beijing-appointed chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, and for open elections in 2017.

With the operation to clear the Mong Kok site coming hours later, Occupy Central, the leading student-led activist group organizing the protests, accused Leung's administration of insincerity.

The South China Morning Post, the territory's leading — and largely independent — English-language daily, reports:

"The pro-democracy movement questioned the government's sincerity in engaging in dialogue following a dawn operation that returned traffic to the streets in one of the busiest areas of the city in a dawn operation." 'Police removed barricades in Mong Kok 15 hours after [chief executive] Leung Chun-ying said engaging in dialogue didn't mean the government would not clear the protest sites. We think it amounts to an open insult to the intelligence of Hong Kong people,' Occupy Central said in a statement." 'If [the government] continues to clear protest sites gradually under the disguise of removing barricades, it would only provoke more people to take to streets.' "Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.