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HONG KONG, Aug 2 (Reuters) - Hong Kong police said on Friday they had arrested eight people, with a leading pro-independence figure reportedly among them, after seizing weapons and suspected bomb-making material as the city braces for another weekend of anti-government protests.
Civil servants and medical workers will join the next round of weekend protests. Millions have taken to the streets in recent weeks in Hong Kong's biggest political crisis since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Andy Chan, a founder of the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party that was banned last September, was among those arrested. His arrest prompted about 100 protesters to surround a police station to demand his release, television footage showed.
Police said in a statement they had arrested seven men and one woman, aged between 24 and 31, after a raid on a building in the New Territories district of Sha Tin, where they seized weapons and suspected petrol bombs.
All eight were remanded in custody while investigations continued, police said. Making or possessing explosives illegally can carry a sentence of up to 14 years in jail.
On Wednesday, 44 people were charged in a Hong Kong court with rioting over their role in a recent protest that turned violent when thousands of activists clashed with police near Beijing's main representative office in the heart of the city.
What started three months ago as rallies against an extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial has evolved into a wider backlash against the city's government and its political masters in Beijing.
The protests now pose one of the biggest popular challenges Chinese President Xi Jinping has faced since he came to power in 2012.
In a rare move, thousands of civil servants are expected to rally on Friday evening to urge the government to heed protesters' demands and help restore confidence in the beleaguered administration.
The protesters want the now-suspended extradition bill to be withdrawn fully, the characterisation of the protests as "rioting" removed, charges against those arrested dropped and an independent inquiry into the crisis.
Medical workers will also demonstrate late on Friday, with large-scale protests planned for the weekend in Mong Kok, Tseung Kwan O and Western districts.
The protests have escalated and become more frequent since June, at times shutting government offices, blocking roads and disrupting business. Some have degenerated into violent clashes between activists and police.
Under the terms of the handover from Britain in 1997, Hong Kong was allowed to retain extensive freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland under a "one country, two systems" formula, including an independent judiciary and the right to protest.
But, for many Hong Kong residents, the extradition bill is the latest step in a relentless march towards mainland control. (Reporting By Anne Marie Roantree and Donny Kwok; Editing by Paul Tait)