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Police arrest more than 500 after massive Hong Kong protest

HONG KONG -- Hong Kong police arrested more than 500 protesters at a sit-in early Wednesday following a huge march that organizers said mobilized half a million people demanding democratic reforms.

The arrests followed a largely peaceful march on Tuesday that protest leaders said brought the biggest crowds onto the streets since the city was handed over from Britain to China in 1997.

Police moved in at 3 a.m. to break up the sit-in by about 2,000 protesters in the semi-autonomous city's Central financial district with some being dragged away by officers.

They said 511 demonstrators were arrested for illegal assembly or obstructing police, but pro-democracy activists and Amnesty International criticized the move as excessive.

Several pro-democracy lawmakers were among those arrested.

Police lifted activists, many lying on the ground with their arms chained to each other, onto coaches that took them to a temporary detention centre at a police college in Wong Chuk Hang district.

“I have no regrets!” one of them shouted, while others flashed V-for-victory signs.

A police spokeswoman said in a statement late Wednesday that 18 people had been released on bail while 364 people were released without charge. The rest remained detained pending further investigation.

“It was necessary for police to make arrests in order to quickly restore transportation and order in the Central core financial district,” Hong Kong's security minister Lai Tung-kwok told reporters.

Lai said police carried out the arrests in a professional manner and with “maximum restraint.”

Discontent in Hong Kong is at its highest level in years over Beijing's insistence that it vet candidates before a vote in 2017 for the city's next leader.

Pro-democracy group Occupy Central has said it will stage a mass sit-in in Central later this year unless authorities come up with acceptable electoral reforms.

Hong Kong enjoys liberties not seen on the mainland, including free speech and the right to protest, but there are heightened fears that those freedoms are being eroded.

Concerns increased in June when Beijing published a controversial “white paper” on Hong Kong's future that was widely seen as a warning to the city not to overstep its bounds.

After the document was published, nearly 800,000 people took part in an unofficial referendum calling for residents to have a say in the nomination of candidates for chief executive in the 2017 election.

Beijing branded the vote “illegal and invalid.”

Tens of thousands of marchers Tuesday carried banners with slogans including “We want real democracy” and “We stand united against China.”

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Policemen remove protesters in the Central district after a pro-democracy rally seeking greater democracy in Hong Kong early on Wednesday as frustration grows over the influence of Beijing on the city. Scores of protesters were forcibly removed by police in the early hours following a massive pro-democracy rally that organizers said saw a turnout of over half a million. (AFP)

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