Hong Kong student leaders spearheading days of mass protests have agreed to 11th-hour talks with the pro-Beijing government aimed at easing the crisis that has brought much of the city to a standstill.
The agreement, announced early Friday, came just hours after the territory's embattled chief executive offered to meet with protest leaders. In extending the offer, however, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying refused a key student demand that he step down.
Student leaders had threatened to storm government offices if Leung refused their resignation demand. But as the resignation deadline passed, there were no reports of violence near the offices, which are surrounded by throngs of students and under heavy police guard.
The pro-democracy group Occupy Central welcomed the agreement and said leaders "hope the talks can provide a turning point in the current political stalemate." But Occupy Central, like other student groupings involved in the standoff, also demanded that Leung quit.
Hong Kong authorities had earlier urged thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators to immediately end their blockade of the city center. The protests, nearly a week old, have brought large parts of the Asian financial hub to a standstill.
“About 3,000 government officials will try their best tomorrow to return to work as [much] as possible. To maintain public service, the government headquarters must operate as usual,” the government said in a statement. “We urge the Occupy Central leaders and organizers to stop the movement immediately.”
Tensions late Thursday
During the day, the protesters prepared face masks and goggles while police brought in supplies of tear gas and other riot gear as tensions grew outside the imposing government compound near the waterfront.
Police warned of serious consequences if the protesters try to surround or occupy government buildings, which protesters had threatened to do earlier if Leung didn't resign by midnight Thursday.
The protesters remained calm after Leung's address, although many were dissatisfied and said his comments were not enough.
“I don't think this is sufficient. I think he's trying to slow down the process and make us go home ... [but] people are feeling tired, mentally and physically and the numbers may decrease,” said Nicholas Chan, 20, a journalism student at Chinese University.
“The bargaining power is in the numbers," he said.
Taking over government buildings would mark a major escalation in the protests, and police are warning of "serious consequences" if the demonstrators try to do so.
In his news conference, Leung said authorities would continue to tolerate the protests as long as participants did not charge police lines.
“In any place in the world, if there are any protesters that surround, attack, or occupy government buildings like police headquarters, or the chief executive's office ... the consequences are serious,” he said.
Earlier Thursday, police spokesman Steve Hui said authorities will not tolerate any illegal surrounding of government buildings, including law enforcement agencies, and urged protesters to stay "calm and restrained."
The student protesters have been camping outside Leung's office in the semi-autonomous Chinese city.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators have occupied several main thoroughfares in Hong Kong since last Friday. They are angry about China's refusal to allow universal suffrage in 2017 elections.
The Communist Party on Thursday signaled it is not ready to compromise. A front-page editorial in the People's Daily, a party mouthpiece, expressed confidence in the embattled Leung.
The editorial said the protests violated Hong Kong's law, blocked traffic, disrupted social order, and hurt peace and prosperity. It added that Beijing firmly supports the handling of the protests by Hong Kong police.
Police on Sunday used tear gas and pepper spray in a failed attempt to disperse the protest camps. But police pulled back, allowing the protests to continue.
There are reports that Leung is reluctant to use further force against the demonstrators, and that he will instead attempt to wait out the protests in hopes they subside or lose public support, and will only intervene if there is looting or violence, said a government source with ties to Leung.
Earlier Thursday in Washington, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi slammed the protests as illegal and warned the U.S. and others to not interfere with China's internal affairs.
Wang's comments came after meeting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who said he has "high hopes that Hong Kong authorities will exercise restraint and respect protesters' rights to express their views."
U.S. President Barack Obama also participated in the meeting, where he underscored U.S. hopes for a peaceful resolution of the Hong Kong standoff.
A White House statement said the Obama administration is closely following events in Hong Kong.
It also noted consistent U.S. support for the "open system" of governance in the city necessary to maintain its "stability and prosperity."
Obama opens a three-day visit to Beijing on November 10.
The protests mark the worst unrest in Hong Kong since Beijing took control of the one-time British colony in 1997.
Some material for this report came from Reuters, AFP and AP.