[HONG KONG] Hong Kong's acting chief executive on Tuesday called on pro-democracy protesters to clear sites they have occupied in the Asian financial centre for more than six weeks and warned that those who remained could face arrest.
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, who is acting leader while chief executive Leung Chun-ying attends the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing.
Hong Kong media had speculated that China was waiting to clear the protesters until after the APEC summit ends later on Tuesday. U.S. President Barack Obama was due to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday before flying out.
US officials have said freedom of speech and assembly are universal values, including in Hong Kong.
Lam spoke a day after a Hong Kong court ruled that police could arrest protesters who defy authorities trying to clear sites in some of the most economically important districts in the Chinese-controlled city.
Lam said police would make arrests as needed but did not give any timeframe.
The student-led protesters are demanding fully democratic elections for the city's next chief executive in 2017 instead of the vote between pre-screened candidates that Beijing has said it would allow.
Demonstrators said they were ready to react quickly to any moves to clear the sites. "All the occupiers have already packed up their belongings and some resource stations have also readied their things to be easily transported at first notice," said Kaven Chan, 20, a protester in the bustling district of Mong Kok.
At the height of the protests, police fired tear gas and pepper spray to disperse thousands of demonstrators, 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 to push for full democracy, according to an informal Reuters survey last month.
The protests, the most tenacious since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997, have defied riot police and attacks from hostile mobs, as well as intense government and public pressure.