Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam has said she will suspend a proposed extradition bill indefinitely.
Ms Lam said in a press conference that she took the decision in response to widespread public unhappiness over the measure, which would enable authorities to send some suspects to stand trial in mainland China.
Many in the former British colony worried that the move would further erode cherished legal protections and freedoms promised by Beijing when it took control in 1997.
A mass protest over the issue had been planned for Sunday.
Hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents took to the streets in demonstrations earlier this week. Protests turned violent on Wednesday, adding to pressure on Ms Lam to back down.
Ms Lam said the government would study the matter further.
She said: “After repeated internal deliberations over the last two days, I now announce that the government has decided to suspend the legislative amendment exercise.
“I want to stress that the government is adopting an open mind. We have no intention to set a deadline for this work.”
Ms Lam said she would “adopt a sincere and humble attitude in accepting criticism” over the government’s handling of the issue.
She had previously refused to withdraw the bill, and many protesters have demanded her resignation.
Activists later repeated their demands for Ms Lam to withdraw the legislation, and urged Hong Kong residents to turn out on Sunday for another mass protest against the proposal.
“Hong Kong people have been lied to so many times,” said Bonny Leung, a leader of the Civil Human Rights Front, one of the groups which has helped drive the demonstrations.
Members of the group said Ms Lam should resign and apologise for the police use of potentially lethal force during clashes Wednesday’s clashes.
Ms Lam emphasised that one of her chief concerns was to avoid further injuries both for the public and for police.
“It’s possible there might be even worse confrontations that might be replaced by very serious injuries to my police colleagues and the public,” she said. “I don’t want any of those injuries to happen.”
She defended the force employed by police during protests earlier in the week, saying some of the demonstrators involved were “very violent”.
About 80 people were injured during Wednesday’s confrontations, including 22 police officers.
Ms Lam, chosen by Beijing to be the highest-level local official, is caught between her Communist Party bosses and a public anxious to protect the liberties Hong Kong enjoys as a former British colony.
Protests died down late in the week, but by midnight on Friday there were still dozens of youths singing and keeping a vigil near the city’s government headquarters, where demonstrators had tussled with police who deployed tear gas, pepper spray, hoses and steel batons as thousands pushed through barricades.
Ms Lam declared that Wednesday’s violence was “rioting”, potentially raising severe legal penalties for those arrested for taking part.
In past cases of unrest, authorities have waited months or years before rounding up protest leaders.
In April, nine leaders of a 2014 pro-democracy protest movement known as the “Umbrella Revolution” were convicted on public nuisance and other charges.
Prior to Saturday’s announcement by Ms Lam, some members of the Executive Council, Hong Kong’s cabinet, said she should rethink plans to rush the legislation through.
A group of former senior government officials issued a public letter urging her not to force a confrontation by pushing ahead with the unpopular bill.
More than 1,000 people joined a peaceful “mothers’ protest” on Friday evening in a city centre garden.
Adding to tensions, the extradition bill has drawn criticism from British and American officials as well as human rights groups. This has prompted Beijing to warn against “interference” in its internal affairs.