HONG KONG - Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying agreed on Friday to open talks with pro-democracy protesters but he and his Chinese government backers made clear that they would not back down in the face of the city's worst unrest in decades.
Leung refused to bow to an ultimatum from protesters to resign and repeated police warnings of serious consequences should they try to block off or occupy government buildings.
He told reporters just minutes before the ultimatum expired at midnight that Chief Secretary Carrie Lam would meet students soon to discuss political reforms, but gave no timeframe.
Tens of thousands have taken to Hong Kong's streets in the past week to demand full democracy, including a free voting system when they come to choose a new leader in 2017. However, numbers dwindled considerably at one protest site as Hong Kong people returned to work after a two-day holiday.
The protests have ebbed and flowed since last Sunday when police used pepper spray, tear gas and baton charges to break up the demonstrations, which are the biggest since the former British colony was handed back to Chinese rule in 1997.
China rules Hong Kong through a "one country, two systems" formula underpinned by a "Basic Law", which accords Hong Kong some autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland and has universal suffrage as an eventual goal.
Beijing, however, decreed on Aug. 31 it would vet candidates who want to run for chief executive at an election in 2017, angering democracy activists who took to the streets.
While Leung made an apparent concession by offering talks, Beijing restated its resolute opposition to the protests and a completely free vote in Hong Kong.
"For a few consecutive days, some people have been making trouble in Hong Kong, stirring up illegal assemblies in the name of seeking 'real universal suffrage'," China's official People's Daily said in a front-page commentary on Friday.
"Such acts have outrightly violated the Basic Law, Hong Kong's law, as well as the principle of the rule of law, and they are doomed to fail," the commentary warned.
Thousands of protesters had gathered outside Leung's office in central Hong Kong in anticipation of the ultimatum, but were disappointed when Leung stood firm.
Their numbers fell to hundreds as the sun rose on Friday and Hong Kongers prepared to go back to work after a two-day holiday. Protesters prevented two trucks from delivering supplies for about 100 police guarding Leung's office.
The stand-off outside Leung's office was peaceful but police condemned protesters for blocking food, water and medical supplies for officers and said in a statement they would take "appropriate measures" if they did not stop immediately.
In a statement, Leung's office also described the blockade of pedestrian pathways outside as "serious illegal" activity.
There were also signs of tension between the protesters and government employees trying to go back to work.
"I need to go to work. I'm a cleaner. Why do you have to block me from going to work?" said one woman as she quarrelled with protesters. "You don't need to earn a living but I do."
The government later declared its main office building closed for the day, with workers going to secondary sites.
Other protest sites in the Central business district and in the densely packed Mong Kok residential district were quiet. The number of protesters in the luxury shopping area of Causeway Bay fell sharply to about 100, with police removing barricades that demonstrators had placed across some streets.
Protesters there called to each other to say they should regroup in the area around Leung's office later on Friday.