Tensions rose in Hong Kong as the government urged pro-democracy demonstrators to "disperse peacefully as soon as possible." Police were seen unloading boxes of rubber bullets, as protesters threatened to occupy government offices unless the territory’s embattled leader steps down by the end of Thursday.
The government statement followed confrontations between protesters and police outside the central government offices, with authorities saying the protests were having "serious impacts" on the city.
"The government and the police appeal to those who are gathering outside the police headquarters, CGO [central government offices] and CEO [chief executive's office] not to block the access there and to disperse peacefully as soon as possible," the Hong Kong government said in a statement.
Police earlier carried long wooden boxes and metal barrels into the legislative headquarters as angry protesters tried to block their path.
Pictures shared widely on social media and television showed one barrel with "Round, 38mm rubber baton multi" written on it. Another barrel had "1.5 in, CS" emblazoned on it, a possible reference to CS gas, a tear gas.
"If protesters surround government property ... causing total blockage, seriously affecting public safety and public order ... the police will not allow this violent act to happen," police spokesman Hui Chun-tak said.
China also warned of "chaos" and threw its weight behind the city’s leader. The official People's Daily newspaper said in a commentary Thursday that the "central government fully trusts Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and is very satisfied with his work."
It added that it firmly supports the Hong Kong police — criticized for using tear gas and pepper spray on the protesters last weekend to quell the worst unrest since the former British colony reverted to Chinese rule in 1997— "to handle illegal activities in accordance with the law."
Earlier Thursday police kept their distance from the thousands of mostly young people keeping up protests, now nearly a week old, in several districts. About 200 riot police stood behind metal barricades as more than 3,000 protesters gathered outside Leung’s office in the early hours of Thursday.
"We're trying to surround the government complex and wait for C.Y. [Leung] to come back to work on Friday," protester Thomas Choi told Agence France-Presse. "We want to talk to him face to face."
The protesters want Leung to step down by the end of Thursday and have demanded China introduce full democracy so the city can freely choose its chief executive. Leung, handpicked by Beijing, has refused to resign, leaving the two sides far apart in a dispute over how much political control China should have over Hong Kong.
Leung is prepared to allow the protests to subside and will intervene only if there is looting or violence, said a government source with ties to the chief executive.
"Unless there's some chaotic situation, we won't send in riot police ... We hope this doesn't happen," the source said, according to Reuters. "We have to deal with it peacefully, even if it lasts weeks or months." Leung could not be reached for comment.
In Washington, President Barack Obama told visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi that Washington was watching the protests closely and urged a peaceful solution.
Universal suffrage is an eventual goal under the "one country, two systems" formula that China applies to Hong Kong — in which China accords Hong Kong some autonomy and freedoms not offered in mainland China.
However, protesters calling for free elections reacted angrily when Beijing decreed on Aug. 31 that it would vet candidates wishing to run in Hong Kong's 2017 chief executive election.
Wang said before an earlier meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry that other countries should not meddle in China's affairs.
"The Chinese government has very formally and clearly stated its position. Hong Kong affairs are China's internal affairs. All countries should respect China's sovereignty," Wang said.
That comment and an editorial read Wednesday evening on state TV suggested that for all Leung’s willingness to wait it out, Beijing might be losing patience. The editorial said all Hong Kong residents should support authorities in their efforts to "deploy police enforcement decisively" and "restore the social order in Hong Kong as soon as possible."
In the Thursday commentary, the People's Daily said that the rule of law must be safeguarded "in order to realize the healthy development of democracy and politics in Hong Kong."
"Handling affairs without following laws, Hong Kong society will be in chaos," it warned.
The protesters, it said, "flagrantly violated Hong Kong's law and regulations, seriously blocked traffic and disrupted social order.”
Concern about the disruption prompted mainland authorities on Wednesday to suspend group tours to Hong Kong.
While The People's Daily warned of "unimaginable consequences" if protests persist, an intervention by China's military or security forces is a worst-case but unlikely scenario, said Steve Vickers of risk consultancy Steve Vickers and Associates.
"If it actually came to pass,” he said, “this would present a major threat to business and to Hong Kong's autonomy and reputation.”
Al Jazeera and wire services