Hundreds of Hong Kong police officers have moved in to clear pro-democracy protesters out of a tunnel outside the city's government headquarters.

Officers, many of them in riot gear and wielding pepper spray, tore down barricades in and around the underpass early on Wednesday, hours after a large group of protesters blockaded the tunnel.

They outnumbered the police officers, who later returned with reinforcements to clear the area.

The AP news agency reported that many of the protesters were arrested, without providing a specific figure.

Protesters, frustrated after the government cancelled plans for dialogue, earlier told the AFP news agency that they had decided to take the highway after police earlier cleared another occupied main road without warning.

Appearing to use a strategy of gradually chipping away at the three main protest areas, hundreds of police fanned out in the early hours of Tuesday to take down barriers that the protesters had erected overnight.

Officers used electric saws and bolt cutters to take down bamboo scaffolding built in the Admiralty area after a mob stormed some of the barricades the day before. 

Police will continue to take down barriers set up by protesters, police spokesman Steve Hui said.

Violence and arrests

He said officers arrested 23 men in Monday's violent clashes, when masked men and taxi drivers led a crowd of several hundred who tried to charge the protest zone.

The police operations over the past two days follow the government's abrupt cancellation of talks scheduled last Friday with the activists, citing the unlikelihood of a constructive outcome given their sharp differences.

The protesters want China's government to drop plans for a pro-Beijing committee to screen candidates in the territory's first direct elections, promised for 2017.

They also demand that Hong Kong's deeply unpopular Beijing-backed leader, Leung Chun-ying, resign.
Leung has said there is "almost zero chance" that China's government will change its rules for the 2017 election.

The demonstrations have posed an unprecedented challenge to the government.

Organisers say as many as 200,000 people thronged the streets for peaceful sit-ins after police used tear gas on September 28 to disperse unarmed protesters. 

Numbers have since dwindled and the remaining demonstrators, sensing that the earlier actions were aimed at testing their defences, braced on Tuesday evening for possible further police moves to clear out their protest camps.

Source: Agencies