HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong police on Monday removed some barricades erected by pro-democracy protesters in the Chinese-controlled city, but said protesters could remain on the streets they have occupied for the past two weeks.
At the main protest site, near government offices in the downtown district of Admiralty, scores of student protesters faced off with police who were massing in the area, a Reuters witness said.
The removal of barricades and massing of police, some carrying small riot shields, were the first signs in two weeks that the government may be prepared to back threats by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying that the blockade of key parts of the Asian financial hub could not last indefinitely.
Protesters are demanding Leung step down and China allow Hong Kong people the right to vote for a leader of their choice in 2017 elections. China wants to select candidates for the election.
The demonstration escalated late last month after police used tear gas and batons on demonstrators. Since then, police have been largely hands-off and their presence minimal.
On Monday morning, many protesters in Admiralty donned face masks and goggles in preparation for possible use of tear gas or pepper spray.
"They don't want to clear everyone today. They want to make the protest area as small as possible to open roads to traffic," said a stage audio technician named Tyler who was among the protesters in Admiralty.
"I don't want to cause any inconvenience to the public but it is the only way we can do (it). If we do it in a more peaceful or legal way the government won't notice us."
After removing some barricades to relieve traffic chaos in the area, police told Reuters that protesters could remain on the street.
"ZERO-CHANCE" BEIJING WOULD BUCKLE
The Hong Kong and Beijing governments have called the protests illegal. The Hong Kong government last week called off talks with student leaders, causing the ranks of protesters to swell.
On Sunday, Leung vowed to remain in office and warned students demanding his resignation that their pro-democracy movement was out of control.
The Beijing-backed Leung told a Hong Kong TV channel that the blockade - now entering its third week - could not continue indefinitely. His government would continue to try to talk with student leaders but did not rule out the use of "minimum force" to clear the area, he said.
Leung has warned that there was "zero chance" that China's leaders in Beijing would change an August decision limiting democracy in Hong Kong.
The former British colony was promised that its freedoms would be protected under a "one country/two systems" formula, when Britain handed its old colony back to China 17 years ago.
Beijing has said that only candidates screened by a nomination committee will be able to contest a full city-wide vote to choose the next chief executive in 2017.