HONG KONG - Thousands of pro-democracy protesters took to the streets of Hong Kong Sunday for the first time since mass demonstrations shut down parts of the city for more than two months.
A sea of yellow umbrellas - the symbol of the campaign - moved slowly through central Hong Kong with crowds shouting for "true universal suffrage".
Organisers had said the rally would draw 50,000 people. An AFP reporter estimated that several thousand had joined the march by mid-afternoon but no police estimate was available.
Police warned that attempts to reoccupy main roads cleared of tented protest camps in December are likely.
But no protest group has announced it intends to relaunch the occupation, and the march began peacefully Sunday afternoon with many carrying yellow balloons.
The rally will gauge the public's willingness to keep fighting for free leadership elections. Authorities have made no concessions to activists' demands and tensions remain high in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.
"We just want to express our frustration with the government in Hong Kong," said protester Ronnie Chan, who is in his 40s and works in sales and marketing.
"We understand there is very little we can do, but if we don't speak out nothing will change." Officials in December cleared protest camps which had blocked several main roads. Rallies drew around 100,000 at their peak and saw intermittent violent clashes with police.
China promised Hong Kongers the right for the first time to vote for their next chief executive in 2017. But it ruled that nominees must be vetted by a pro-Beijing committee, a proposal which has been heavily criticised by activists.
Organiser Daisy Chan said the rally would show that the Occupy movement, as the protests were known, was a political awakening.
"In the past, these citizens were less political than they are right now. The Occupy movement woke people up."
The founders of the movement including Benny Tai, along with teenage activist Joshua Wong and other student leaders, are also attending the rally.
Student activist Alex Chow said there was no plan to take back the streets.
"We don't have a plan (to reoccupy). If others want to do it, they will have to do it themselves," he told AFP.
'Tired of politics'
"This march demonstrates to the citizens that the pro-democracy momentum is not dead," said political analyst Sonny Lo.
But Lo also believes residents are exhausted from protests over political reform.
"At this moment members of the public are tired of politics. The democrats have to strategise very carefully," said Lo, head of the social sciences department at the Hong Kong Institute of Education.
Chan said marchers were not planning to re-occupy the streets on Sunday but police were nervous.
"It is believed that those supporting the illegal occupation are likely to seize the opportunity to reoccupy roads which have been now reopened to traffic," a police statement said.
Around 2,000 police are being deployed to the rally, according to local media.
Hong Kong's government is urging the public to support Beijing's electoral plan, which needs the backing of two-thirds of the city's legislature to be passed.
Lam Woon-kwong, convenor of the Executive Council or cabinet, warned campaigners to accept Beijing's framework.
"You can't threaten the central authorities," he told a radio programme Sunday.
"If we can have consensus to have universal suffrage in 2017 first and democratise further later, it would be a more pragmatic approach," he said.
Protests in Hong Kong pre-date Occupy, with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets to protest over issues including an unpopular security bill.
Last July hundreds of thousands also demonstrated a month before Beijing ruled on political reform.