Hong Kong police have fought running battles with protesters trying to break through a security cordon around a university in the city, firing teargas at anyone trying to leave.
Polytechnic University, a sprawling campus that has been occupied by demonstrators since last week, has become the scene of the most prolonged and tense confrontation between police and protesters in more than five months of political unrest.
Hundreds were still trapped inside on Monday, after overnight clashes during which protesters launched petrol bombs and shot arrows at police, who threatened to use live rounds.
When a group of protesters tried to escape the campus, police fired teargas and rubber bullets at various exits, preventing them from leaving. When another group attempted to flee later on, hiding under umbrellas and shields made from scraps, officers fired more rounds of teargas and deployed a water cannon, engulfing the area in smoke. Several protesters were arrested.
The game of cat and mouse followed a night of mayhem in the Chinese-ruled city in which roads were blocked, a bridge was set on fire and a police officer was shot by a bow and arrow.
“The police might not storm the campus but it seems like they are trying to catch people as they attempt to run,” the Democratic lawmaker Hui Chi-fung told Reuters. “It’s not optimistic now. They might all be arrested on campus. Lawmakers and school management are trying to liaise with the police but failed.”
Earlier, the university’s president, Jin-Guang Teng, had urged protesters to leave, saying the police had agreed to a ceasefire on the condition that protesters stopped their attacks.
By mid-afternoon local time, about 300 to 400 people were left in the university, according to a volunteer in the campus. Asked what they planned to do, she said: “They are 20-year-old kids. They don’t have plans. Everyone is nervous.”
Tang Siu Wa, another volunteer who has been at the campus for two days, said: “Officially, they are saying people have to leave now, and even pointing out some ways to let you out. But when people try to leave that way, they contain them. It’s a set-up. They don’t let anyone on the university campus go.”
Tang said the group was exhausted and faced dwindling supplies of food and water. Some peaceful protesters wanted to leave and others wanted to stay, he added. “People are getting tired but they don’t want to surrender.”
Journalists have not been allowed the near the university.
The intensifying violence came as local media reported that district council elections may not be held this Sunday as scheduled because of the demonstrations. Cancelling the polls is likely to make the situation even worse: some protesters have been demanding that the government promise to hold the elections, which are seen as the last institutional venue people have for expressing their views.
In another development, Hong Kong’s high court ruled that a ban on face masks implemented by the government was unconstitutional. The ban made wearing any facial coverings during public assembly punishable by prison time and fines.
Police had previously issued a statement ordering everyone inside the university to drop their weapons, remove their gas masks and leave. “The rioters are hereby warned to stop their unlawful acts,” the police said.
Representatives of the university’s student union posted a statement on Facebook saying police had blocked all exits since Sunday night. The union said several protesters were in need of medical help, including three people with eye injuries and about 40 experiencing hypothermia after being hit by water cannon.
“Because most of the emergency relief team and first-aiders have been arrested and taken away, there are insufficient resources and personnel within campus to treat the injured,” the statement said, calling the situation “a severe humanitarian crisis”.
In other neighbourhoods, police fired teargas and water cannon at protesters and other supporters who had occupied streets and built barricades in an attempt to divert police resources overnight on Sunday. Dozens were seen being arrested when they returned hours later on Monday. Volunteers with cars blocked roads to slow the police.
The People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist party, published an editorial on its front page saying there was no room for compromise: “What we are facing today is a struggle between safeguarding ‘one country, two systems’ and destroying it.
“On an issue involving national sovereignty and the future of Hong Kong, there is no middle ground and absolutely no room for compromise.”
Hong Kong is experiencing its most serious political crisis in decades after the government attempted to push through a controversial extradition bill that would have allowed suspects to be sent to mainland China, seen by many as another move to extend Beijing’s control over the city. Protests over the now withdrawn bill pose a direct challenge to China, which governs Hong Kong under the “one country, two systems” framework.