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HONG KONG - Pro-democracy demonstrations in two of Hong Kong's most crowded shopping districts came under attack Friday from unidentified men who assaulted protesters and tore down their encampments, as the Beijing-backed government sent sharply conflicting messages about how to grapple with the unrest.

The protesters said the attackers were pro-government gangs, and several protest groups called off planned negotiations with the government in response. Whoever the culprits were, and by this morning it was still unclear, they drew crowds of angry supporters, neighbors fed up with the inconvenience of the protests and happy to see gangs step in where the police refused to go.

Both the pro-democracy movement and the government were showing increasing signs of wear and desperation, each improvising its next moves like chess players in the face of dwindling options.

The Beijing-backed government continued to deploy one contradictory strategy after the next, sending in riot police with tear gas one day, pulling them back the next, refusing in principle to talk to protesters, then calling for talks, announcing a plan to wait out the protests, then appearing to sit on its hands as the protesters were attacked.

The new elements injected Friday were the gangs of attackers, who entered the fray a day after the China's Communist Party warned that there would be "chaos" in Hong Kong if the protests did not end.

The skirmishing opened in the Mong Kok neighborhood, when a couple of dozen men stormed a protest encampment in the middle of a major thoroughfare usually packed with traffic and shoppers. Brawls also broke out at another protest encampment, in the busy shopping district of Causeway Bay, as tourists hustled by clutching shopping bags.

The protesters want the Chinese government to reverse a decision requiring all candidates in the first election for Hong Kong's leader in 2017 to be approved by a committee.