HONG KONG — Hong Kong's embattled leader offered Thursday to hold talks between his government and pro-democracy protesters, but said he will not accept their demand that he resign.
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying told reporters that he has asked the territory's top civil servant to arrange talks with the protesters, who have been demanding electoral reforms. The massive street demonstrations are the biggest challenge to Beijing's authority in Hong Kong since China took control of the former British colony in 1997.
Leung made the comments at a news conference just minutes before a deadline that had been set by the protesters for him to step down.
Standing beside him, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam said she would seek to arrange talks with student leaders of the protest as soon as possible.
"I hope both sides will be satisfied," she said. "Students had wanted a public meeting but I hope that we can have some flexibility to discuss details."
Before Leung's announcement, the heads of two major universities whose students have joined others in launching the protests appeared before a jittery crowd massed in front of the entrance to the leader's office and appealed for calm.
During the day, the protesters prepared face masks and goggles while police brought in supplies of tear gas and other riot gear as tensions grew in an increasingly tense standoff outside the imposing government compound near the waterfront.
Police warned of serious consequences if the protesters tried to surround or occupy government buildings. The protesters threatened to do so if Leung didn't resign by the end of Thursday.
In his news conference, held just before midnight, Leung said the authorities would continue to tolerate the protests as long as participants did not charge police lines.
Associated Press writers Elaine Kurtenbach, Kelvin Chan and Louise Watt in Hong Kong, and Didi Tang and news assistant Henry Hou in Beijing contributed to this report.