In an apparent concession to authorities warning pro-democracy protesters to clear Hong Kong’s streets by the beginning of the work week, students occupying the area outside city government headquarters agreed yesterday to remove some barricades that have blocked the building’s entrance during the week-long demonstrations.
However, it was not immediately clear how significant the move was and how much it would defuse the standoff, with many protesters vowing to stay in the area. The partial withdrawal also appeared to be part of a strategy to regroup in another part of town.
Television footage from the scene showed a protest representative shaking hands with a police officer and the two sides removing some barricades together. About 300 demonstrators remained standing peacefully outside the government’s main building, and did not appear to have intentions to move.
Across the harbour in Hong Kong’s Mong Kok district, protesters appeared divided about whether to stay put or decamp to the city’s Admiralty area, the main protest site. The atmosphere in Mong Kok was relatively relaxed as people began to clear out, though many said they were headed home and not to another protest area.
“I don’t know what the next step is, but I will not retreat. The people you see here will not retreat,” said Burnett Tung, an 18-year-old student who has served as a volunteer at a food supply station outside government headquarters all week.
“The leaders of the movement are the citizens. We’re leading the movement, not them,” said Roy Wong, 21, referring to some protest leaders who called for a retreat from Mong Kok.
Tens of thousands of people, many of them students, have poured into the streets of the semi-autonomous city over the past week to peacefully protest China’s restrictions on the first-ever direct election for Hong Kong’s top leader, promised by Beijing for 2017.
However, with the standoff between the protesters and the government in its eighth day, tempers were flaring and patience was waning among residents who oppose the occupation of the streets and the disruption it has brought.
Police using pepper spray clashed with protesters overnight, after officials said they intended to have key streets open for schools and offices by Monday morning.
Large crowds of demonstrators scuffled with police in the blue-collar Mong Kok district, a flashpoint that has seen violent clashes between pro-democracy student protesters and their antagonists.
Police said they had to disperse the crowds with force because protesters had provoked officers with verbal abuse, while the students accused police of failing to protect them from attacks by mobs intent on driving them away. The students say police allied themselves with criminal gangs to clear them, but the government has vehemently denied the accusation.
Hong Kong’s leader, chief executive Leung Chun- ying, appeared on television on Saturday evening to urge everyone to go home, saying key roads paralysed by protesters needed to return to normal today.
“The government and the police have the duty and determination to take all necessary actions to restore social order so the government and the seven million people of Hong Kong can return to their normal work and life,” Leung said.
The atmosphere on the streets was tense yesterday amid fears police may use pepper spray and tear gas to disperse the protesters, as they did last weekend. The University of Hong Kong, among others, warned students to leave the streets.
“I am making this appeal from my heart because I genuinely believe that if you stay, there is a risk to your safety”, said Peter Mathieson, the university’s president.
The protests are the strongest challenge to authorities in Hong Kong and in Beijing since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Beijing has promised that the city can have universal suffrage by 2017, but it says a committee of mostly pro-Beijing figures must screen candidates for the top job. The protesters also are demanding Leung’s resignation, but he has refused to step down.
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