HONG KONG - Hong Kong's acting chief executive on Tuesday called on pro-democracy protesters to clear sites they have occupied for more than six weeks and warned holdouts they could face arrest, a move that could swell protest numbers.
Hundreds of student-led demonstrators are camped out in two key districts of the Chinese-controlled city where they have pitched tents and set up supply stations on roads bisecting some of the world's most expensive real estate.
Hong Kong media reported that authorities could start removing protesters as early as Wednesday.
"To those who are unlawfully occupying the roads, we call for you to leave the areas quickly and peacefully," said Carrie Lam, acting leader while chief executive Leung Chun-ying attends the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing.
The protesters are demanding fully democratic elections for the former British colony's next chief executive in 2017 instead of the vote between pre-screened candidates that Beijing has allowed.
Hong Kong media had speculated that China was waiting to clear the protesters until after the APEC summit ends on Tuesday. US President Barack Obama was due to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday before flying out.
Lam spoke a day after a court ruled that police could arrest protesters who defy authorities trying to clear camp sites. Lam did not provide a timeframe.
"As the place where the whole movement began, Admiralty is likely to be the last area to be cleared because people will come out again real quick if the police touch the nerve of the movement," Matthew Ng, 21, said from his tent in the district next to government buildings.
Many protesters said they would simply regroup if police moved in.
At the height of the protests, police fired tear gas and pepper spray to disperse thousands, many of whom used umbrellas, gloves and masks to protect themselves.
Almost nine out of 10 protesters said they were ready to stay on the streets for more than a year, according to an informal Reuters survey last month.
The protests, the most tenacious since Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, have defied riot police and attacks from hostile mobs, as well as intense government and public pressure.
China has ruled Hong Kong since 1997 through a "one country, two systems" formula which allows wide-ranging autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland and specifies universal suffrage as an eventual goal.