Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said on Tuesday the escalation of violence in anti-government protests that have rocked the Asian financial centre for three months is becoming more serious.

Lam was speaking in public for the first time since anti-government demonstrations escalated on Sunday, when police fired water cannon and volleys of tear gas in running battles with protesters who threw bricks and petrol bombs.

The Chinese-ruled region is grappling with its biggest political crisis since its handover to Beijing in 1997 and Communist Party authorities have sent a clear warning that forceful intervention is possible to quell the violence.

Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed leader said she was confident the city’s government could handle the unrest by itself and she would not give up on building a platform for dialogue.

But she said the time was not right to set up an independent inquiry into the crisis, one of the cornerstone demands of protesters.

She also dismissed talk of her resignation, telling reporters that a responsible chief executive should continue “to hold the fort and do her utmost to restore law and order in Hong Kong.”

Riot police detain a demonstrator during the same protest. Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has called the escalation of violence serious. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

The government said on Monday illegal violence was pushing Hong Kong to the brink of great danger after weekend clashes that included the first gunshot and the arrest of 86 people, the youngest just 12.

The protests escalated in mid-June over a now-suspended extradition bill that would have allowed Hong Kong people to be sent to mainland China for trial in courts controlled by the Communist Party.

But the demonstrations have evolved over 12 straight weeks into a broad demand for greater democracy under the “one country, two systems” formula following the handover to China by colonial ruler Britain in 1997. Many Hong Kong residents believe Beijing is eroding the city’s autonomy and their rights.