Hong Kong's embattled leader Leung Chun-ying on Thursday refused to resign, minutes ahead of a deadline issued by organizers of mass pro-democracy protests which entered their fifth consecutive day with crowds besieging key government buildings.
As he spoke, thousands of demonstrators, many of them young people, gathered outside central government offices, Leung's offices and police headquarters, calling for genuine universal suffrage and for the chief executive's resignation.
The students have threatened to escalate their protests by occupying government buildings if Leung refuses to resign over police use of tear-gas and pepper spray on demonstrators last weekend.
However, Leung promised his second-in-command Carrie Lam would meet with students' representatives "soon" to discuss political reforms.
"I won't resign because I must carry out the universal suffrage work," said Leung, referring to electoral reforms in which China ruled out public nomination of candidates in the 2017 elections for his successor.
He warned of potentially "serious consequences" if protesters tried to storm government buildings.
Leung also once more ruled out any change in an Aug. 31 ruling by China's National People's Congress (NPC), which said candidates must be vetted by a pro-Beijing election committee.
"Only by following the Basic Law and the [NPC] decision, will we have universal suffrage in 2017," he told reporters. Pan-democratic politicians and democracy campaigners have dismissed Beijing's reform plan as "fake universal suffrage."
As Leung spoke, hundreds of police in regular uniforms stood guard behind steel barricades outside government offices in the Central district, as authorities issued megaphone warnings to the crowd to move away from a street serving government headquarters.
Your action is causing obstruction to other road users," the announcement said. "Please return to the pavement as soon as possible."
Protesters and police sources told local media that police had earlier unloaded several boxes of supplies from a truck, including rifles designed to fire tear-gas, tear-gas canisters and other riot-fighting equipment.
The crowd chanted "Explain! Explain!" as the supplies were carried into the building, sparking fears that further force could be deployed in the event of a bid to occupy government buildings.
Meanwhile, Occupy Central founder Benny Tai said the movement has lacked central leadership until this point, but that organizers are now considering their options carefully.
"It has been spontaneously carried out by a lot of citizens and various groups," Tai said. "But nobody's orchestrating it."
"We are still trying to think of a way to taking the movement forward, but we are only considering methods that the participants will agree to."
Senior police superintendent Steve Hui said police would take action in accordance with the law if the protesters tried to enter government buildings.
"Whenever there are violent and major incidents and crimes such as fighting and any other situation that jeopardizes safety and public order, police will take resolute and firm action to restore public order," Hui told reporters, who had asked how police would respond.
"You can be sure that the police will have enough manpower to deal with any sort of situation," he said.
Thousands, at times hundreds of thousands, of protesters have staged mass, peaceful sit-ins on major highways and intersections in the Central business district, adjacent Admiralty and the Causeway Bay shopping district of Hong Kong Island.
Across the harbor, mass protests have also blocked Nathan Road in major shopping districts of Kowloon.
The Hong Kong government and police, who have taken a generally less aggressive approach since being strongly criticized over Sunday's crackdown, called on Thursday for an end to the protests.
"Protesters have been gathering around these buildings and operations have already been affected," it said in a statement published on the government website.
It said some 3,000 civil servants would be returning to work on Friday.
"In order to continue with its services to the general public, the Central Government Offices will need to be in operation as usual tomorrow," it said.
"If the siege continues and worsens, the access, normal operation and security of the above government offices will be seriously affected," it said. "This will eventually affect social order, [and] the Government ... has the responsibility to protect these government offices."
A protester outside the central government buildings said their demands seemed to be falling on deaf ears.
"We have protested for so many days in a row, and yet [Leung] pays no attention," she said. "I think we need to set up in a different place; maybe his office."
"He's got to get to work, right?"
In Admiralty's Harcourt Road, a technical college student surnamed Gong said she wasn't adamant that Leung should resign, however.
"The HKFS doesn't represent me; I, we have our own ideas," she said. "It's not important whether C.Y. Leung steps down or not. The most important thing is that we want freedom and democracy."
"We want genuine universal suffrage."
But she said Leung should "recognize his mistakes" regarding the use of force against protesters at the weekend.
Meanwhile, exiled democracy activists and former student leaders of the 1989 protests that led to bloodshed at the hands of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), said the protesters would only be safe for as long as they enjoyed popular support.
Near the Kowloon ferry terminal in Tsimshatsui, an elderly man surnamed Wong said he was against the protests.
"These young people have never known want or need; they have faced no major difficulties in life, and they think that all of these things just come naturally," Wong said.
"It's not going to happen," he said. "What they're asking for is nonsense."
Nearby, a group of some 100 protesters in white shirts and blue ribbons, in contrast to the Occupy Central campaign's yellow, shouted "We support the police! Enforce the law with a clear conscience!"
"Thank you, police!" the protesters shouted.
Another bystander surnamed Wong said: "I'm not against their campaign; as long as it's lawful and doesn't stop people from earning a living."
"But if they think the Hong Kong government's going to give in, then what's the point of the rule of law at all? I think the Occupy Central protesters should think about that."
While Beijing has yet to make a public comment on the Occupy movement, an editorial in the ruling Chinese Communist Party's People's Daily newspaper warned against "chaos" in the city,
It said Beijing fully supports Hong Kong's police force "in handling these illegal protests according to the law."
Meanwhile, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama said he is praying for a peaceful resolution to the stand-off between protesters and police in Hong Kong.
The Dalai Lama, who said he is "closely watching" the situation, declined to predict how things might turn out, however, saying only: "Very difficult to say. Very difficult".
Reported by Wen Yuqing and Lin Jing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.