Hong Kong: Thousands of Hong Kong pro-democracy demonstrators massed outside the offices of the city`s embattled leader early Thursday in a tense standoff with police, with calls growing for him to resign as mass protests grip the city.
Around 200 police equipped with riot helmets, gas masks and shields stood firm behind metal barricades as more than 3,000 protesters gathered outside Leung Chun-ying`s office in the early hours, with some saying they wanted to storm the building, an AFP reporter at the scene said.
A car nearly hit the crowd as it swerved past, further raising tensions as the protesters yelled at the police from behind the barricades and chanted for Leung -- seen by critics as a Beijing stooge -- to step down.
"We`re trying to surround the entire government complex and wait for CY (Leung) to come back to work on Friday (after Thursday`s public holiday)," protester Thomas Choi told AFP.
"We want to talk to him face to face."
The spike in tensions came after three days of peaceful demonstrations that have seen tens of thousands of people take over major Hong Kong highways, calling for Beijing to allow free elections in the semi-autonomous city.
On Wednesday night, one of the student leaders organising the protests threatened to step up the action -- including a possible attempt to occupy government offices -- if Leung did not resign by Thursday.
"We will consider having different operating actions in future days, including occupying other places like important government offices," said Agnes Chow of student movement Scholarism.
Students have been at the forefront of the demonstrations but others have swelled their ranks since riot police tear-gassed protesters on Sunday night, in chaotic scenes that triggered an outpouring of support.
In a sign of Beijing`s growing unease over the situation, local Hong Kong tourism representative said Chinese travel agents were reporting that group tourist visas to the city had been suspended,
"I`m hearing this from a lot of travel agents in China," Joseph Tung, executive director of the Travel Industry Council of Hong Kong, told AFP, stressing that the move had not been confirmed by Beijing.
October 1-7 is known as "Golden Week" in mainland China, a key shopping holiday that sees many travel to the southern Chinese city.The standoff at Leung`s offices came after vast crowds poured onto the streets for a fourth sweltering night.
There was a mixed response to the call for an escalation of action.
"We need to escalate the movement," said 23-year-old student Jason Chan. "So many people have come out every day and the government hasn`t responded to us. If we don`t take things to the next level, this movement is pointless."
But many others were reluctant to take any action that could prompt further clashes with the police.
"I think we should keep this a peaceful revolution," said costume designer Janice Pang.
"Hong Kong people may not support us if we do something more extreme."
The protesters are furious at the central government`s refusal to allow free elections for the city`s next leader in 2017, insisting that only two or three candidates vetted by a pro-Beijing committee will be permitted to stand.
They call this "fake democracy" and have two demands -- that Leung steps down and that Beijing reverses its decision.
In a movement being dubbed the `umbrella revolution` -- a nod to the umbrellas they have used to protect themselves against tear gas, the sun and torrential downpours alike -- the protesters have brought key parts of the city to a standstill, heavily disrupting the transport network and shutting down businesses.
Wednesday and Thursday are both public holidays in Hong Kong, leaving many workers free to swell the masses in the streets.China on Wednesday issued a stern warning to the Washington to stay out of the situation, brushing off US calls for restraint and saying the protests were none of its business.
"The Chinese government has very firmly and clearly stated its position. Hong Kong affairs are China`s internal affairs," Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told US Secretary of State John Kerry ahead of talks.
"All countries should respect China`s sovereignty and this is a basic principle of governing international relations."
However, support for the protesters has been growing worldwide, with smaller "solidarity" demonstrations held from Taipei and Singapore to London and Washington.
Huge crowds cheered on Wednesday night as messages of support from around the world were projected onto Hong Kong`s main government building -- including words of encouragement from sympathisers in mainland China.
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.
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.
The last British governor of Hong Kong said Wednesday that the entire situation had been "very, very badly mishandled", calling on authorities to enter into consultation with demonstrators.
"I think we`ve got to see dialogue replacing tear gas and pepper spray," Chris Patten told the BBC radio, adding that China was reneging on its promises to allow the city to manage its own affairs.