Hong Kong: Hong Kong`s government has said it will open talks with student demonstrators on Tuesday, after three nights of violent clashes between police and protesters who have paralysed parts of the city with mass pro-democracy rallies.
The city`s leader Leung Chun-ying made a dramatic u-turn on Thursday by announcing a return to talks with the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS), one of the groups leading the protests, after abruptly pulling out of discussions a week earlier.
"Right now we are planning that it will take place on the afternoon of Tuesday, October 21," Leung`s deputy Carrie Lam told reporters on Saturday.
Lam said the talks -- which will be broadcast live -- would be focused on constitutional reform, with both sides allowed to bring five members to the meeting.
But hopes of any breakthrough are slim, with the government unlikely to cede to protesters` core demands -- Leung`s resignation and free leadership elections for the semi-autonomous Chinese city in 2017.
Beijing insists that candidates for the vote must be vetted by a committee expected to be loyal to China, and Leung has warned that the country`s communist authorities have no intention of backing down.
"The Hong Kong government is the party that can solve this political problem," Lester Shum told thousands of demonstrators gathered at the main protest site outside government headquarters on Saturday night.
The demonstrators have held sit-ins at three key intersections since September 28, causing major disruption in an Asian financial hub usually known for its stability.
Shum insisted that the protesters will not budge from the streets ahead of the talks, warning: "If the government tries to clear the sites, the citizens will respond with action."
Friday saw a third night of violent clashes between police and protesters, with officers using batons and pepper spray to fight back surging crowds in the high-density Mongkok shopping district.
The fighting broke out as demonstrators battled to retake a protest camp that police had mostly cleared earlier in the day, tearing down tents and barricades in a bid to restore traffic to the busy junction.
Police said 26 people had been arrested and 15 officers injured in the clashes -- including after being jabbed by the umbrellas that have come to symbolise Hong Kong`s pro-democracy movement, as protesters use them as shields against pepper spray.
Police chief Andy Tsang told reporters his force had been tolerant since the rallies began in the hope that protesters would "calm down".
"Unfortunately these protesters chose to carry on with their unlawful acts, including acts which are even more radical and more violent," Tsang said.
Police used tear gas against protesters on September 28, in a move that grabbed worldwide attention and led tens of thousands of Hong Kongers to spill onto the streets in support of the pro-democracy movement.
But the demonstrations have remained largely peaceful for the last three weeks. The recent spike in violence came after shocking video footage emerged of plainclothes police officers beating a handcuffed protester as he lay on the floor.
Many residents have become increasingly frustrated over the disruption caused by the protests, with road blockages causing heavy traffic jams in the city of seven million, and local companies complaining of a downturn in business.
The crowds of protesters have shrunk dramatically from their peak of tens of thousands earlier in the month.
A former British colony, Hong Kong was handed back to Chinese rule in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" deal that guarantees freedoms not seen on the mainland, including freedom of speech and the right to protest.
But fears have been growing that these liberties are being eroded, while anger has also soared over perceived political interference from Beijing and increasing inequality in the freewheeling financial hub.
The mass rallies come as one of the biggest challenges to Beijing`s authority since the Tiananmen pro-democracy protests of 1989.