HONG KONG - Hong Kong's embattled leader called Tuesday for an immediate end to street demonstrations that have drawn tens of thousands and paralysed the city, but protesters refused to move until Beijing grants the financial hub genuine democracy.
In his first public comments since demonstrators were tear gassed by riot police on Sunday evening, chief executive Leung Chun-ying said protests organised by the pro-democracy Occupy Central group had got "out of control".
"Occupy Central founders had said repeatedly that if the movement is getting out of control, they would call for it to stop. I'm now asking them to fulfil the promise they made to society, and stop this campaign immediately," Leung said.
But protest leaders immediately rejected Leung's demands and renewed their calls for him to step down.
"If Leung Chun-ying announces his resignation, this occupation will be at least temporarily stopped in a short period of time, and we will decide on the next move," co-founder Chan Kin-man told reporters after Leung's comments.
The protests have left Beijing grappling with one of the biggest challenges to its rule of the semi-autonomous city at a time when the Communist Party is cracking down hard on dissent on the mainland.
The demonstrations, the worst civil unrest Hong Kong has experienced since its 1997 handover from British rule, were sparked by Beijing's decision last month to restrict who can stand for the city's top post.
Hong Kongers will be able to vote for their next chief executive in 2017 elections but only two or three candidates vetted by a pro-Beijing committee will be allowed to stand - something demonstrators have labelled a "fake democracy" that shows Hong Kong cannot trust its mainland overseers.
But Leung said Beijing would never be persuaded to change its stance by the protesters while they occupy streets.
"The central government will not be coerced into submission because some people have used illegal actions," he said.
We must keep fighting
Schools in affected areas Tuesday were again closed and commuters faced disruption, with many bus routes suspended or rerouted and taxis scarce.
Throughout the morning protester numbers dwindled from their overnight highs, when tens of thousands turned the city's downtown into a carnival after riot police withdrew.
But those manning the barricades showed no signs of backing down, digging in for a third day of occupying major thoroughfares.
"We have to keep fighting for freedom and democracy because it has been gradually taken away from us," 23-year-old Phoebe Wong told AFP.
"People won't stop until we have a result we're happy with. It feels like the government doesn't care about us and isn't listening," she added.
In the central district of Admiralty - where many international businesses and the main protest site are located - Sara Chan was one of many lamenting the lack of movement from Hong Kong's government.
"I am happy the police didn't use tear gas last night, but we still haven't heard anything constructive from the government," she said.
Analysts say the chance of Beijing backing down is virtually non-existent, leaving a city once renowned for its stability plunged into an unknown future with democracy activists concerned the police could return at any moment.
Overnight the United States led international calls for Hong Kong authorities to "exercise restraint".
"We believe an open society, with the highest possible degree of autonomy and governed by the rule of law, is essential for Hong Kong's stability and prosperity," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.
Former colonial power Britain also expressed concern, calling for "constructive" talks to end the standoff.
But on Monday, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Beijing opposed "any foreign and external interference in China's internal affairs by any country".
Frustration and strikes
Communist authorities are worried that dealing with the protests too softly could encourage wider demands for greater freedoms on the mainland.
Hong Kong authorities meanwhile are caught between protester demands, Beijing's uncompromising stance and trying to keep the city running.
Many locals have expressed frustration at the huge disruption the protests have caused, with the crowds blocking key junctions in the busy Causeway Bay and Mongkok shopping districts as well as the biggest protest site in Admiralty near the government headquarters.
But the protests have also prompted displays of solidarity. Some social workers and teachers also went on strike after the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions and the Professional Teachers' Union called for members to take action.
Commentators say still bigger crowds could turn out as the week progresses, with Wednesday and Thursday public holidays in Hong Kong.
Wednesday marks the 65th anniversary of the Communist Party's seizure of power in Beijing - which is celebrated as National Day across China. But in Hong Kong, fireworks scheduled for Wednesday evening have already been cancelled.