The mass rallies that had drawn tens of thousands evaporated last night in the face of a warning from Hong Kong's embattled leader Leung Chun-ying to leave the streets and allow government offices to reopen.

Many heeded the call but several hundred weary demonstrators remained at the main site in downtown Admiralty, with similar numbers across the harbour in Mongkok.

Student leaders denied their campaign for free elections had lost momentum, saying they would remain on the streets, even as they announced that talks with the government would take place this week.

But Leung issued another warning to disperse, saying they should leave the flashpoint district of Mongkok -- which has seen ugly scuffles with triad mobs -- "as soon as possible".

"To prevent violent crime and to reduce the amount of injuries, police will take action at the right time," Leung said in a televised address, describing the area as "high risk".

The protesters and their well-organised campaign have enjoyed strong public support, with sympathy soaring after police used tear gas on the crowds. But after shutting down parts of the city for more than a week, irritation has grown.

Highways were jammed with traffic and subway trains were packed as frustrated commuters tried to find their way to and from work, battling cancelled bus routes and road diversions.

"They have to let the cars through as soon as possible – they are blocking the way," 25-year-old Michael Lau told AFP as he travelled on the city's tram network.

A four-day environment symposium gathering 11 Nobel winners that was due to open on Wednesday has been scrapped "due to the sustained disruptions in the city," organisers say.

However, secondary schools closures in affected areas, which had been a particular headache for families, were lifted and the government said primary schools would reopen tomorrow.

"To demonstrate is one thing -- but don't affect our livelihoods any more, because we have rent to pay," said a fruit juice seller who gave her name as Mrs Hau.

But some backed the protesters.

"I don't mind the extra time I spend getting home. I support the students," Judy Kwan, a nurse, told AFP.

"Some of my family think it's a little annoying, but we all want real democracy so it's worth it."

Those protesters who remained were battling fatigue today, as the energy of a once-euphoric campaign began to subside.

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