By James Pomfret and Donny Kwok
HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hundreds of Hong Kong police used sledgehammers and chainsaws on Tuesday to tear down barricades erected by pro-democracy protesters near government offices and the financial centre, reopening a major road for the first time in two weeks.
But late in the evening demonstrators retaliated by swarming into a tunnel on a major four-lane thoroughfare, bringing traffic to a halt and chanting for universal suffrage.
Riot police tried to push them back with pepper spray and batons, according to a local news channel, but later retreated.
Traffic flowed freely along Queensway Road after the protesters' obstructions were cleared early in the day, although other major protest sites remained intact in the Admiralty and Mong Kok districts and pro-democracy demonstrators were defiant.
"We will rebuild them after the police remove them," said protester Bruce Sze. "We won't confront the police physically."
Police with chainsaws cut through bamboo defences and others wielded sledgehammers to smash concrete blocks outside the Bank of China's Hong Kong headquarters and next to the office of Asia's richest man, Li Ka-shing.
Office workers streamed onto the streets to watch.
Unlike on Monday, when clashes erupted between anti-protest groups and pro-democracy activists after police removed blockades, there was no immediate confrontation as a result of Tuesday's operation.
In the evening, however, hundreds of people made a surprise move to occupy the tunnel on Lung Wo Road, an important east-west artery near the offices of the Hong Kong government and legislature that had been intentionally left open to traffic for most of more than two weeks of protests.
"The police took a road from us today and cleared away tents, so we're taking this road," said Kelvin Chor, one of the protesters.
MORE BARRICADES GO UP
After the police retreated, scores of demonstrators, some wearing protective face masks and goggles, swiftly formed several lines of makeshift barricades, setting the stage for another possible flashpoint.
The protesters, most of them students, are demanding full democracy for the former British colony, but their two-week campaign has caused traffic chaos and fuelled frustration in the Asian financial hub, draining public support.
China rules Hong Kong under a "one country, two systems" formula that accords the city a degree of autonomy and freedom not enjoyed in mainland China, with universal suffrage an eventual goal.
But Beijing has said only candidates screened by a nomination committee will be able to contest a full city-wide vote to choose the next chief executive in 2017.
The city's pro-Beijing leader, Leung Chun-ying, said this week there was "zero chance" China's leaders would give in to protesters' demands and change an August decision limiting democracy. The protesters want Leung to step down.
The Hong Kong and Beijing governments have called the protests illegal. Some of the city's most powerful tycoons had earlier warned that occupying the heart of the city to press for democracy could undermine stability.
They have remained largely silent since the protests began.
By noon on Tuesday, the Queensway Road thoroughfare was open and traffic, including school and tour buses, streamed into the Central business district that is home to global companies such as HSBC Holdings and Standard Chartered.
A main city tram line was also open again and trams were clattering through the district.
"Police have done a good job this time. The traffic is much better now, at least vehicles can move steadily compared with the past week when you couldn't move at all," said Luk Wai-lam, a taxi driver in his 60s.
There had been fears of trouble on Wednesday, with anti-protest taxi and truck drivers setting a deadline for the barricades to go. But a representative of a taxi drivers' group told Reuters on Tuesday his members had no plan for action.
Police, criticised for using tear gas and batons in the first 24 hours of the protests, have adopted a more patient approach, counting on protesters to come under public pressure to clear main arteries. In recent days, police have selectively removed some barriers on the fringes of protest sites.
The number of protesters has fallen off sharply from a peak of about 100,000 at three sites, but observers believe they will sit it out.
"I don't think the protesters, having suffered tear gas, endured the attacks by the anti-occupy people, I don't think they will just surrender unconditionally and leave," said Joseph Wong, political analyst at the University of Hong Kong.
Police said clearing of the barricades was aimed at easing congestion and the protesters could stay, which suggested a strategy of attrition. About 100 activists staged a sit-in outside the Admiralty Centre shopping complex surrounded by scores of police.
Many students believed Monday's clashes were co-ordinated and involved triad criminal groups and people paid to cause trouble, and they reinforced their barricades on Monday night, putting up bamboo scaffolding along one thoroughfare.
They also poured concrete over the foundations of their road blocks and placed bamboo spears in their barricades.
But police swept it all away on Tuesday.
(Additional reporting by Bobby Yip, Carlos Barria and Clare Baldwin, Writing by Anne Marie Roantree and John Ruwitch; Editing by Michael Perry and Mike Collett-White)