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HONG KONG — Hong Kong police detained a handful of prominent activists Friday in a deepening crackdown on protest organizers ahead of expected demonstrations this weekend. At least two of three activists were later released on bail.
Official protest organizers confirmed to NBC News that they were pulling out of demonstrations initially planned for Saturday after police turned down a permit for the rally. Both protest organizers and police told NBC News an assembly of activists was still expected and could lead to clashes as officials tried to prevent demonstrations at China's Liaison Office in Hong Kong.
Joshua Wong, a prominent pro-democracy activist who had also led the 2014 "Umbrella" protests, was arrested Friday morning local time while traveling to a train station, the youth-led protest group Demosisto said.
"He was suddenly pushed into a private car on the street," organizers said in a statement. "He has now been escorted to the police headquarters in Wan Chai on the basis of three charges."
Other demonstrators arrested were Agnes Chow, a member of Demosisto, and Andy Chan, a founder of the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party, which was banned in September.
Demosisto announced hours later that both Wong and Chow were granted bail. It is unclear whether Chan was released, although local media reported that he was still being detained.
In a video shared by Demosisto on Twitter filmed one day before Chow's arrest, the activist shared harsh words toward chief executive Carrie Lam, saying she "shows no mercy to the populace" while calling the government "illegitimate."
"Hong Kongers have endured months of hardship and suffering," she said according to translated subtitles. "In spite of all these dark moments, we shall hold on our demands."
The international human rights group Amnesty International condemned the arrests, calling them "an assault on their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly."
"This past week, we have seen scare tactics straight out of Beijing’s playbook: pro-democracy protest organizers attacked by thugs, prominent activists arrested after being snatched from their homes and streets, and a major rally planned for Saturday banned," Man-kei Tam, director of Amnesty International Hong Kong, said in a statement.
"It is vital that the authorities send a clear message that people in Hong Kong can still enjoy these rights irrespective of their political beliefs."
The demonstrations that have plunged the former British colony into a political crisis began in June after Lam proposed a controversial extradition bill. The bill raised fears that the rights of Hong Kong's 7 million residents were being eroded under Beijing's rule, as it would allow suspects to be sent to China.
Hong Kong became a special administrative region of China in 1997. Unlike those living in the mainland, residents of the territory can freely surf the internet and participate in public protests.
Demonstrations have since morphed from calling for the withdrawal of the extradition bill to include demands that Lam resign and allegations of police brutality be investigated.
On Friday, Reuters reported that China had rejected a plan put forward by Lam to appease the protesters.
The plan had assessed the protesters' five key demands and found that withdrawing the extradition bill could help defuse the crisis, three individuals with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters. But the Chinese central government rejected the proposal and ordered Lam not to yield to any of the protesters' other demands, they told the news agency.
These reports come just one day after Beijing rotated its troops in its People's Liberation Army garrison in the territory. Chinese defense ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang wouldn't say Thursday if the number of troops in the territory, estimated between 8,000 and 10,000, had increased as a result of the rotation.
Mac William Bishop reported from Hong Kong, and Linda Givetash from London.