A deadline for pro-democracy demonstrators to clear Hong Kong's barricaded streets loomed Sunday, as the Beijing-backed leader claimed the disorder now risked "serious consequences" for public safety and Chinese state media said it had ruined the city's image.
Embattled chief executive Leung Chun-ying said the government was determined to "take all necessary actions to restore social order" and allow residents to "return to their normal work and life". In particular he pointed to the need to allow government staff to resume work by Monday morning.
Only a few hundred were on the streets early Sunday afternoon in the downtown Admiralty district near the government headquarters. Hours earlier tens of thousands had turned out there in the biggest gathering yet of the week-long protest.
But it remained to be seen whether protesters had heeded Leung's call or merely headed home for some rest before taking to the streets again, which has been the pattern all week.
Those there said they had no intention of leaving.
"I don't know the police's strategy, but I've told my friends and students that we have to be here tonight," said Petula Ho, an associate professor at Hong Kong University (HKU).
"Students don't have to be in dangerous areas in the front, but we must be here."
Nixon Leung, a 22-year-old masters student at HKU, said: "I'm worried about the threat from CY, but I'm not going to leave because we are fighting for our values and genuine universal suffrage.
"We must continue our fight. The government has not responded to our demands for civil nomination and for CY to step down, but have constantly asked us to retreat. We simply cannot accept that."
The protesters are demanding the right to nominate who can run as Hong Kong's next leader in 2017 elections.
The Communist government of China, which regained sovereignty over Hong Kong from Britain in 1997, insists that only pre-approved candidates will be able to stand and has repeatedly said the protests are doomed to fail.
Leung said he was determined to clear the streets near the government offices by Monday, after two public holidays cut short the working week last week.
"We have to ensure the safety of government premises and restore their operation," Leung said in a televised address late Saturday.
"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."
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.
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.
'I'm going to stay'
"I saw police transporting bags of supplies that looked like riot gear into government headquarters," said Ivan Ha, a psychology student.
"But despite that, I'm going to stay until real dialogue happens, hopefully with CY," the 20-year-old added.
Student leaders said early Sunday that they were willing to enter into negotiations with the government if certain conditions were met.
They had earlier scrapped an offer of talks over anger at police for failing to protect them from violence.
Sporadic clashes have broken out, mainly in the Kowloon district of Mongkok, with democracy activists claiming that agitators from the city's triad mobs are being paid to attack peaceful demonstrators.
Hong Kong's main student union, HKFS, said in a statement: "The government should investigate why the police were so lax in enforcement, accusations of helping criminals and to give an explanation to the public as soon as possible.
"As long as the government responds to the above, the students are willing to talk again," it said.
Violence flared anew in the early hours of Sunday in densely-populated Mongkok district as riot police used batons and pepper spray to fight back demonstrators who accused officers of cooperating with gangsters.
Police Senior Superintendent Patrick Kwok defended the use of the spray while Financial Secretary John Tsang admitted Sunday the government had "no experience and psychological preparation" for the extent of the Occupy movement.
While drawing many sympathisers to the streets, the protest campaign has also caused wide-scale disruption and taken a heavy toll on local businesses.
Small rallies by crowds sporting blue ribbons have been held by people who say they support the police and the government.
The People's Daily newspaper, a Communist Party mouthpiece, said in an editorial on Sunday, that the image of Hong Kong as a ruly, incident-free city had been "ruined".