Pro-democracy protesters gather outside the police headquarters in the Wanchai district of Hong Kong on October 15, 2014
Hong Kong's embattled leader made a dramatic u-turn Thursday, reopening his offer of talks with student protesters a week after the government abruptly pulled out of discussions aimed at ending more than a fortnight of mass pro-democracy rallies.
The city's Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying made the offer a day after video footage showing plainclothes police officers beating a handcuffed demonstrator sparked widespread anger.
"We would like to start a dialogue to discuss universal suffrage as soon as we can and hopefully within the following week," Leung told reporters.
Hong Kong's main student union, which has been at the vanguard of the massive protests, gave a cautious welcome to the offer.
"Let's wait and see how they convince the people here," Lester Shum, deputy secretary general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS), told a crowd of thousands gathered outside government headquarters on Thursday night.
But a huge question mark remains over whether fresh talks can make any substantive headway in the stalemate between the government and protesters, who are demanding free leadership elections for the semi-autonomous city.
Beijing insists that candidates for the 2017 vote must be vetted by a loyalist committee -- and Leung warned that China's Communist authorities have no intention of backing down.
"Politics is the art of the possible, and we have to draw a line between possibilities and impossibilities," he said.
- Police suspended over beating -
The Asian financial hub has been rocked by mass rallies for nearly three weeks calling both for full democracy and Leung's resignation.
Ongoing sit-ins at three major intersections have caused major disruption in a city usually known for its stability.
Protesters have called Beijing's proposal a "fake democracy" and have vowed to remain on the streets until their demands are met, despite growing impatience among some Hong Kongers and attacks on their camps by pro-government thugs.
City authorities pulled out of talks with the HKFS last Thursday, plunging the two sides deeper into an impasse that has no obvious ways out.
The offer of new talks came after a two-day spike in violence between police and protesters as they battled over barricades near the government's besieged headquarters, with officers using pepper spray against crowds who angrily accused them of links to criminal triad gangs.
Police on Thursday said seven officers involved in the beating video were now suspended pending an investigation.
The incident has become another public relations disaster for the police, who were severely criticised for firing tear gas on umbrella-wielding protesters on September 28 in a move that attracted worldwide attention.
Amnesty International and the United States both called for a swift investigation of the officers.
Leung also refused Thursday to rule out further barricade clearances by police that led to the recent uptick in clashes with protesters after two weeks of relative calm.
"We cannot allow the negative affect on Hong Kong to continue because of the blockage of these streets. Police will use appropriate methods at the appropriate time to handle this problem," he said.
At the protest camp in Hong Kong's busy Causeway Bay shopping district, protesters complained that police used a nearby fire on Thursday as a cover for removing more of the metal barriers they have used to block off the streets.
"We don't know if the fire that broke out was an accident or if it was on purpose, so we are worrying," said one 20-year-old protester who gave his name as Ryan.
- Calls to quit the streets -
Leung, who has kept a low profile throughout the last week, had been due to attend a question and answer session at the city's parliament but cancelled his appearance after "security and risk assessments".
He spoke to the media Thursday at his official residence which, unlike his office, is not surrounded by protesters.
Patience with the demonstrators is running short in some quarters, with shop owners and taxi drivers losing business and commuters voicing irritation at disruptions and delays.
The South China Morning Post, the city's most prominent English daily, on Thursday called on protesters to vacate the streets, saying there was little chance of Beijing conceding to their demands.
"The campaign may end in a manner that no one desires. It is perhaps time the protesters considered retreating and reviewing their strategy," the paper said in an editorial, effectively throwing its weight behind the government.