Hong Kong protesters at odds over pullback plan
HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong's pro-democracy activists appeared divided after some agreed to remove some barriers blocking roads and sidewalks ahead of a Monday deadline set by the government and scale back their protests, while others refused to budge.
An alliance of students that has led the massive protests that began on university campuses and then spread to the city's streets said Sunday that it was resuming discussions with the government over holding talks on their demands for wider political reforms. But it vowed to continue the protests while details of the talks were being worked out, and said those preparations would be halted if the authorities used force to clear protesters from areas they have been occupying for over a week.
"As to whether the government will keep its word we will just have to see," the Hong Kong Federation of Students said in a statement. "In the meantime all we can do is preliminary preparations."
Earlier in the day, students occupying the area just outside city government headquarters agreed to remove some barricades that were blocking the building's entrance, after the government said it would do whatever was necessary to ensure 3,000 civil servants would have full access to their offices on Monday.
The partial withdrawal appeared to be part of a strategy to regroup in another part of town, as protesters were urged to shift from other areas to Hong Kong's Admiralty shopping and business district, a central location near the government's main offices that has served as an informal headquarters for the protests.
Officials said they intended to have key streets open for schools and offices by Monday morning, but it was unclear whether they would act to clear the streets and other areas by force or just settle for a partial victory in clearing some roads. The government announced a reopening of schools and some roads, but indicated some disruptions were likely to continue.
"To restore order, we are determined and we are confident we have the capability to take any necessary action," said police spokesman Steve Hui. "There should not be any unreasonable, unnecessary obstruction by any members of the public."
Television footage showed a protest representative shaking hands with a police officer outside government headquarters and the two sides removing some barricades together. About 300 demonstrators stood by outside the government building's main entrance, but then many sat back down and refused to leave.
"I'm against any kind of withdrawal or tendency to surrender," said Do Chan, a protester in his 30s. "I think withdrawing, I mean shaking hands with the police, is a very ugly gesture of surrender."
Across the harbor in Hong Kong's Mong Kok district, where protesters had clashed with those opposed to their sit-ins, some demonstrators heeded calls to head home or shift to Admiralty. Others, however, said they were determined to stay. The hundreds of people milling around in the blue collar shopping district — the scene of ugly confrontations overnight between protesters, their opponents and police — appeared relatively relaxed as many began to clear out, though some said they were just heading home.
"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.
Since Sept. 28, tens of thousands of people, many of them students, have poured into the streets of the semi-autonomous city to peacefully protest China's restrictions on the first-ever direct election for Hong Kong's leader, promised by Beijing for 2017. 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.
China has promised that Hong Kong can have universal suffrage by 2017, but says a committee of mostly pro-Beijing figures must screen candidates for the top job. The protesters also are demanding the resignation of Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, the city's current leader. He has refused to step down.
With the standoff stretching into Week 2, tempers flared and patience was waning among residents who oppose the occupation of the streets and the disruption it has brought.
Police said they had arrested 30 people since the protests started and that they used pepper spray overnight Saturday on crowds that had provoked officers with verbal abuse. Protesters, meanwhile, complained the police were failing to protect them from attacks by mobs intent on driving them away. The students say police have allied themselves with criminal gangs to clear them, but the government has vehemently denied the accusation.
The atmosphere on the streets was tense Sunday amid fears police may use tear gas to disperse the protesters, as they did last weekend. University administrators were warning 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, president of Hong Kong University. "Please leave now. You owe it to your loved ones to put your safety above all other considerations."
In Mong Kok late Sunday, police officers carrying guns patrolled the area, and at least one officer was seen carrying tear gas canisters.
"This is a public place, people need to use this road, people need to live here," said Johnson Cheung, 26, who works in a duty-free shop. "The students don't need to make a living, their parents pay for them. But we have jobs, we have to live."
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