Hong Kong protesters, police standoff on university campus

Hong Kong's democracy movement has taken a violent turn. Protesters barricaded inside a university campus are fighting police in order to escape. 

Kin Cheung/AP
A man on top of a bridge shouts slogans as he's stopped by police while trying to escape the Hong Kong Polytechnic University campus in Hong Kong, Nov. 18, 2019. Hong Kong police fought off protesters trying to flee a perimeter, trapping hundreds on the campus.

As night fell in Hong Kong, police tightened a siege Monday at a university campus as hundreds of anti-government protesters trapped inside sought to escape.

Huge crowds of supporters advanced on foot toward the police from outside the cordon to try to disrupt the police operation, while others emerged from the campus, their trademark umbrellas at the fore. Police in some places swooped in to subdue protesters and make arrests.

Some protesters abseiled off a footbridge to a road below where they were met by motorbike riders helping them flee. It was unclear whether they got away safely.

Hong Kong’s anti-government protesters, who have adopted fluid hit-and-run techniques to press their months-long movement, were having that philosophy put to the test after barricading themselves inside Hong Kong Polytechnic University and sought desperately to escape police determined to arrest them.

Senior government officials said they were trying to de-escalate the situation and urged the protesters to peacefully leave the campus and cooperate with police – advice that seemed certain to lead to arrests and therefore strengthened the protesters’ resolve to resist.

Riot officers broke in one entrance before dawn as fires raged inside and outside the school, but they didn’t appear to get very far. Police, who have warned that everyone in the area could be charged with rioting, reportedly made a handful of arrests.

For days, protesters have fortified the campus to keep police from getting in. Cornered by authorities, they were trying to get out.

The give-and-take has played out repeatedly during the city’s months of anti-government unrest. The protesters want to avoid arrest. The police want to pick up as many as they can.

“These rioters, they are also criminals. They have to face the consequences of their acts,” said Cheuk Hau-yip, the commander of Kowloon West district, where Polytechnic is located.

“Other than coming out to surrender, I don’t see, at the moment, there’s any viable option for them,” he said.

Mr. Cheuk said police have the ability and resolve to end the standoff peacefully so protesters should not “try their luck.”

Protesters won on a legal front when the high court struck down a mask ban imposed by the government last month. The court said it did not consider anti-mask laws unconstitutional in general, but in this case, the law infringed on fundamental rights further than was reasonably necessary.

Many protesters wear masks to shield their identities from surveillance cameras that could be used to arrest and prosecute them. The ban has been widely ignored, and police have charged protesters with wearing masks.

The protests started peacefully in early June, sparked by proposed legislation that would have allowed criminal suspects to be extradited to the mainland. But by the time the bill was withdrawn, the protests had hardened and broadened into a resistance movement against the territory’s government and Beijing.

Activists see the extradition bill as an example of Hong Kong’s eroding autonomy under Beijing’s rule since the 1997 handover from colonial power Britain.

Anti-government protesters barricaded themselves inside Polytechnic last week. Police surrounded the area Sunday night and began moving in after issuing an ultimatum for people to leave the area. The crowd wore raincoats and carried umbrellas to shield themselves from police water cannons.

At daybreak, protesters remained in control of most of the campus. In one outdoor area, some demonstrators made gasoline bombs while others dozed while wearing gas masks. Two walked about with bows and quivers of arrows, while many stared at their smartphones.

“We are exhausted because we were up since 5 a.m. yesterday,” said a protester who gave only his first name, Matthew. “We are desperate because our supplies are running low.”

A lull settled on the area as the president of the university said in a video message that police have agreed to suspend their use of force.

Jin-Guang Teng said police would allow protesters to leave and he would accompany them to the police station to ensure their cases would be processed fairly.

“I hope that you will accept the proposed temporary suspension of force and leave the campus in a peaceful manner,” he said.

It seemed unlikely the protesters would accept the offer given that they would all likely be arrested.

Police have set up a dragnet around the campus to try to arrest protesters, who typically try to melt away after blocking traffic or causing other disruption before police run in to grab as many as they can.

A road closure added to transport woes during the morning commute, with several train stations still closed because of damage by protesters last week and a section of one line closed completely near Polytechnic.

The Education Bureau announced that classes from kindergarten to high school would be suspended for the sixth straight day Tuesday because of safety concerns. Most classes are expected to resume Wednesday, except for kindergarten and classes for the disabled, which are suspended until Sunday, the bureau said.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP journalist Dake Kang contributed to this report.

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