Hong Kong: Hong Kong`s embattled leader stood defiant late Thursday, rejecting demands to resign and sending his deputy to talk to pro-democracy demonstrators, as huge crowds rallied outside his government`s besieged headquarters for a fifth consecutive night.
Huge throngs who have shut down central areas of the city with mass sit-ins all week had set a midnight deadline for Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to step down and for Beijing guarantee the former British colony full democracy.
But moments before the deadline was set to expire, Leung appeared before reporters and flatly rejected those demands.
"I will not resign because I have to continue with the work for elections," he said, referring to upcoming polls in 2017 which are at the centre of the ongoing confrontation between demonstrators and the Beijing-backed city authorities.
However, Leung`s offer of talks appeared to have mollified protest leaders, who had vowed to escalate their occupation of major sites if their demands were not met.
"It is the first time since August 31 that a minister has agreed to talk to students and citizens. This is a critical moment," student leader Lester Shum told the crowds, according to the South China Morning Post, as he called on protesters to avoid confrontations with police.
Occupy Central, the main protester group, said it welcomed the offer of talks with students, adding it hoped they would "provide a turning point in the current political stalemate", but reiterated its calls for Leung to step down.
But in a concession he said he would appoint Chief Secretary Carrie Lam to lead discussions with the Hong Kong Federation of Students, one of the multiple groups involved in the ongoing demonstrations.
In August, China said Hong Kongers would be able to vote for their next leader but only two or three candidates vetted by a loyalist committee would be allowed to stand.
Demonstrators have dismissed the decision as "fake democracy" and have vowed to keep people on the streets for as long as it takes. Loud boos and jeers echoed across the main protest site as Leung`s words were relayed through a series of loudspeakers, AFP reporters said.
"I don`t think talking to Carrie Lam will solve the problem," student protester Karen Man told AFP. "We asked to talk to CY, not his deputy. We`re peaceful and he has nothing to be afraid of."
Protesters had vowed to escalate their occupation of major sites if their demands were not met but some said they would wait for more details before acting.
"We`ll hear what the government has to say first and then plan our next steps," protester Stephen Chan told AFP shortly after Leung spoke. "People won`t attack the police without provocation. I believe in the Hong Kong people`s spirit."
But tensions remained high around the besieged government headquarters, after police in the late afternoon were seen transporting tear gas and rubber bullet rounds, causing widespread alarm and anger within the crowds.
Pictures shared widely on social media and television showed one barrel carried by police with the words "Round, 38mm rubber baton multi" written on it. Another had "1.5 in, CS" emblazoned on it, a possible reference to tear gas.
"The more people are here, the safer we are," Heiman Chan, 25, told AFP, adding he rushed down to the main protest site after seeing photos of the rubber bullet barrels on Facebook.
"We`re not going to leave this space for anything. If they use tear gas we`ll run back and hold a new area, if they use rubber bullets we`ll have to run a little faster," he added.
Throughout the night students had been debating whether or not to fully occupy Lung Wo Road, one of the few remaining carriageways around the government complex -- an act that would leave it completely surrounded.
After Leung spoke, brief scuffles broke out among protesters as a handful of demonstrators tried to close the road, held back by a much larger crowd who berated them.
Police meanwhile warned protesters late Thursday that anyone rushing their cordons or attempting to break into the besieged government offices would meet "resolute enforcement actions".The protests pose a huge political challenge for Beijing at a time when the Communist Party is cracking down hard on dissent on the mainland.
China strongly backed Leung Thursday, saying it was behind him "firmly and unshakably" and pledging support for the police as protesters prepared for a fifth night at the barricades.
An editorial in the Communist Party mouthpiece the People`s Daily Thursday warned against "chaos" in the city, adding Beijing supported "the police of the special territory in handling these illegal protests according to the law".
Authorities have scrubbed mentions of the protests from Chinese social media, while rights groups say more than a dozen activists have been detained and as many as 60 others questioned for expressing support for the Hong Kong crowds.
Beijing`s latest comments came after China`s foreign minister issued a stern warning to the United States not to meddle in its "internal affairs".
Some analysts say it is unlikely Leung will step down, in what would be a massive loss of face for the establishment.
"If Beijing forces him to resign, they will be seen to be buckling under pressure from the protesters," said Willy Lam, a China scholar at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
However Lam added that the longer the protests affect Hong Kong, the more pressure Chinese president Xi Jinping will be under to act.
Around the world the city`s protest movement has been dubbed the "umbrella revolution" -- a nod to the umbrellas they have used to protect themselves against pepper spray, the sun and torrential downpours alike.
No large-scale public backlash has met protesters, although disruption in the last 48 hours has been minimised by a two-day public holiday.