Police seal off PolyU, threaten to fire live bullets

November 18, 2019 10:07
Protesters clash with police at the Polytechnic University in Hung Hom on Monday. Photo: Reuters

Hong Kong police on Monday trapped hundreds of protesters inside the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Hung Hom and demonstrators rampaged through the tourist district of Tsim Sha Tsui, after almost two straight days of standoffs that have raised fears of a bloody showdown.

The university's president, Teng Jin-Guang, said he had reached a deal with police in which officers would suspend the use of force against protesters inside the PolyU campus if the demonstrators didn't attack first, RTHK reported.

In a video message released shortly after police entered the main entrance of the university, Teng urged everyone to leave the campus peacefully, the public broadcaster said.

Police tried to enter the campus around 5:30 a.m., but were met with petrol bombs that set off fires, the report said.

Dozens have been arrested outside the campus.

Defiant protesters inside PolyU faced off against a police water cannon and armored vehicles in raging battles throughout Sunday and overnight.

In the Nathan Road area away from the campus, black-clad protesters roamed streets before dawn, many carrying petrol bombs, while three young women pushed a trolley of petrol bombs down one of the city’s busiest tourist districts.

Others dug up paving slabs and used bricks to block roads, some chanting: “Liberate HK! Revolution of our time!”

A police officer was shot in the calf by an arrow as anti-government protesters, many of them students, responded to police with salvos of petrol bombs and bricks hurled by homemade catapults.

Police threatened to fire live bullets if “rioters” did not stop using lethal weapons in the latest flare-up in anti-government protests that have convulsed the Chinese-ruled city for more than five months.

Scores of protesters were injured, some with scalding burns from chemicals in the jets fired from the water cannon.

The protesters at PolyU had blocked the Cross Harbour Tunnel linking Hong Kong island to the Kowloon peninsula for much of the past week, with authorities desperate to restore the link yet encountering tenacious resistance from the trapped activists.

As police approached the barricaded front gate of the university in the predawn hours, protesters retreated into the campus while starting huge fires at the gate as well as on a footbridge.

The campus was a flurry of uncertainty and activity on Monday morning. Some protesters discussed trying to leave, while others reinforced barricades and carried boxes of petrol bombs to positions around the complex.

Thousands of residents and protesters flocked overnight to various districts around the university including Tsim Sha Tsui, Jordan and Yau Ma Tei, to try to penetrate the riot-police lines to rescue the trapped students.

“If we can only hold on till dawn, more might come,” said one young activist in the university who was close to exhaustion.

In Monday’s statement, police warned people whom they described as rioters to stop using lethal weapons to attack officers and to halt other acts of violence, saying officers would respond with force and possibly live bullets if necessary.

“The protesters have been reacting to the police,” said Joris, 23, a civil engineer who like others did not give his full name.

“We haven’t fought back as much as we could. I would be prepared for jail. We are fighting for Hong Kong.”

‘Trapped here’

Many others trapped on the sprawling red-brick campus close to the city’s harbor, said they would never surrender.

“We’ve been trapped here, that’s why we need to fight until the end. If we don’t fight, Hong Kong will be over,” said Ah Lung, a 19-year-old protester.

Many protesters wore gas masks or tied handkerchiefs over their mouths and noses to protect themselves from clouds of tear gas.

Some stripped down to their underwear, after earlier dousings from water cannon that witnesses said contained an irritant.

An armored police vehicle that was set ablaze by petrol bombs in Sunday’s violence was towed away early on Monday.

The specter of a bloodier standoff has caused some international concern.

Former British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind said in a statement: “Hong Kong’s Chief Executive [Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor] has the responsibility to do everything possible to prevent a massacre. She must order the police to use restraint.”

Earlier, prominent figures, including Auxiliary Bishop of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese, Joseph Ha Chi-shing, and Labour Party lawmaker Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung, went to the scene to talk to police officers and call for restraint, RTHK said. An officer told them to leave immediately.

Cheung said he had tried to call the chief executive to allow people inside the campus to leave peacefully without being arrested, but he couldn’t get through, the report said.

Chinese soldiers close to the university were seen on Sunday monitoring developments with binoculars, some dressed in riot gear.

On Saturday, dozens of People's Liberation Army soldiers in shorts and T-shirts, some carrying red plastic buckets or brooms, emerged from their barracks in a rare public appearance to help clean up debris in Kowloon Tong.

The presence on the streets of the PLA soldiers, even to clean up, risks stoking the controversy about Hong Kong’s status as an autonomous area.

Chinese troops have appeared on the city's streets only once since 1997, to help clear up after Typhoon Mangkhut in September last year. With Reuters

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Protesters climb the fence to leave the university after police sealed off the campus on Monday. Photo: Reuters