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Vincent Yu, Associated Press
Hong Kong Federation of Students leader Alex Chow, center, committee members Nathan Law, left, and Eason Chung react after they denied permission to travel to Beijing, at Hong Kong International Airport Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014. Three students who have led protests for greater democracy in Hong Kong were denied permission to travel to Beijing to meet with China's top officials.

HONG KONG — Three Hong Kong students who have led protests for greater democracy in the former British colony were denied in their attempt Saturday to go to Beijing to meet with top Chinese officials.

Alex Chow, Nathan Law and Eason Chung — members of a student group that played a main role in organizing massive street protests that started nearly two months ago — arrived at the Hong Kong airport greeted by dozens of well-wishers holding up yellow umbrellas. But they were denied boarding passes for a Cathay Pacific flight when they were told their documents that would allow them to travel to Beijing were invalid.

"The Cathay Pacific has confirmed ... that the (students) got their return-home cards cancelled by the mainland authority, so they cannot get the required certificates to get onto the plane," said Yvonne Leung, general secretary of Hong Kong Federation of Students.

In a news conference hours later, the student leaders said annulling their travel documents is an unreasonable move that deprives them of their rights to enter the country's territory.

"It symbolizes that Hong Kong people's right to determine their destiny will be taken away in the future," Chow said.

Carrie Lam, chief secretary for the Hong Kong administration, said that it was unnecessary for the students to petition Beijing and that the central leadership of the ruling Communist Party "is fully aware of the different appeals."

Pro-democracy lawmakers in Hong Kong are routinely denied entry to the mainland, and Beijing in the past has confiscated or refused to renew the travel permits commonly known as return-home cards for a number of Hong Kong activists.

Chow and his deputies had planned to go to China's legislature upon arrival to seek talks with Premier Li Keqiang and others.

A fourth traveler, Jeffrey Tsang, a former member of the student group, tried to board the Cathay Pacific flight separately but his travel permit was not valid.

The protesters oppose Beijing's decision that a panel will screen candidates for the inaugural 2017 election for Hong Kong's top official. Chinese authorities have declared the gatherings illegal.

An editorial in the Saturday edition of the party-run Global Times said the students would not get their meeting and their travel plans were merely a show for sympathy.

"These activists may be too naive," the editorial reads. "Do they really know who they are and whom they can represent? How can they meet whomever they want in Beijing?"

AP writers Didi Tang in Beijing and Kelvin K. Chan in Hong Kong contributed to the report.