Hong Kong protesters divided as deadline looms to clear streets

Benjamin Haas

Hong Kong (AFP) - Pro-democracy demonstrators stood divided Sunday over whether to withdraw from protest sites across Hong Kong, hours before a government deadline to clear key roads they have blockaded for the last week.

Embattled Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has said his administration was determined to "take all necessary actions to restore social order" and pave the way for government staff to resume work by Monday morning.

The protesters are demanding the right to nominate who can run as the international financial hub's next leader in 2017 elections, as China insists only pre-approved candidates like Leung can stand.

Protest group Occupy Central said demonstrators would leave a secondary Mong Kok site on Sunday to reinforce the main rallying point near government offices across the harbour, and would also allow access to a blockaded road near the downtown headquarters in the Admiralty district.

But their announcement was not backed up by defiant student groups, which kicked off the week-long demonstrations earlier than the older activists of Occupy Central had planned.

Scholarism, led by 17-year-old activist Joshua Wong, and the Hong Kong Federation of Students both issued statements saying they had not told supporters to relocate to the main site.

In a minor breakthrough, student leader Lester Shum met Sunday with mid-ranking officials with the aim of setting conditions for a meeting with Leung's deputy Carrie Lam.

University staff made an impassioned plea earlier in the day for students to head home after Leung said the government was determined to clear the streets.

"The most pressing task for the government is to reopen access to the CGO (Central Government Offices) on Monday so that some 3,000 CGO staff can return to their workplace and continue to provide services to the public," he said late Saturday.

Secondary schools in the affected areas would also reopen, the Education Bureau said, as the city administration pushed for Hong Kong to get back to normal.

- 'Serious consequences' -

Leung, who was voted into office by 689 people on a pro-Beijing committee numbering just 1,200 two years ago, issued an ominous warning if the protests are not ended.

"The situation may probably evolve into a state beyond control, and will have serious consequences to public safety and social order," he said.

While drawing many sympathisers, the protest campaign has also caused wide-scale disruption and taken a heavy toll on local businesses.

More than 1,000 people continued to stream into Mong Kok on the Kowloon peninsula by 11:00 pm (1500 GMT), where protesters have faced off with police and anti-democracy agitators from the city's triad mobs over the weekend.

An AFP reporter said the number of plain clothes and uniformed police was also increasing in the area.

"I am staying here to protect this area, I think that we have to do something," said Bosco Leung, a 21-year-old student who said he was angry at perceived police inaction against violence directed at protesters. "We don't have a clear leader here."

A sign reading the "Hong Kong Federation of Students does not represent me" was erected, in further evidence of divisions among the demonstrators.

Sunday marked exactly a week since police fired tear gas on protesters in an effort to disperse them, but only adding sympathy to their cause and boosting numbers.

Meanwhile in Admiralty, the main protest site, a couple of thousand demonstrators remained barricaded in an area that has seen numbers ten times higher in the last week.

"I'm worried about the threat from CY (Leung Chun-ying), but I'm not going to leave because we are fighting for our values and genuine universal suffrage," Nixon Leung, a 22-year-old masters student, told AFP.

Ivan Ha, a psychology student, said: "I saw police transporting bags of supplies that looked like riot gear into government headquarters. But despite that, I'm going to stay until real dialogue happens."

- 'Door open to dialogue' -

Student leaders and the government have both said they were willing to enter talks aimed at ending the impasse but stressed certain conditions.

The government said "the door to dialogue is always open, if the (main student union) HKFS is willing", calling on them to help clear protesters from areas around Admiralty.

HKFS, the Hong Kong Federation of Students, said allegations that police had failed to protect them from violence must be investigated before agreeing to talks.

"Stop threatening and suppressing all the occupiers, then there is possibility to talk, then we will believe the government has the sincerity to fight for the democracy with Hong Kong people," HKFS leader Alex Chow said.

Police Senior Superintendent Patrick Kwok defended the use of the pepper spray in overnight clashes, while Financial Secretary John Tsang admitted the government had "no experience" for the extent of the Occupy movement.

The number of injured sent to hospitals since last Sunday rose to 165, the South China Morning Post said.