Hong Kong police have trapped up to 800 people inside a university in the city, firing tear gas at any protesters trying to escape the campus.
Polytechnic University, a sprawling campus that has been occupied by protesters since last week, has become the site of the most prolonged and tense confrontation between police and demonstrators in more than five months of political unrest.
Hundreds were still trapped inside on Monday morning, following overnight clashes at Polytechnic University during which protesters launched petrol bombs and arrows at police who threatened to begin using live rounds.
When a group of protesters tried to escape the campus on Monday, police fired tear gas at various exits, preventing them from leaving. When another group attempted to flee later on, hiding under umbrellas and shields made out of scraps, police fired more rounds of tear gas and deployed a water cannon, engulfing the area in smoke. Several protesters were arrested.
“The police might not storm the campus but it seems like they are trying to catch people as they attempt to run,” 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, Teng Jin-Guang, had urged protesters to leave, saying the police had agreed to a ceasefire on the condition that protesters stopped their attacks.
Tang Siu Wa, 41, a volunteer with the Protect the Children group, who has been at the campus for the past two days said about 800 people were trapped inside the school, searching for ways out.
“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,” she said. “They don’t let anyone on the university campus go.”
Tang said the group was exhausted and facing dwindling supplies of food and water. Some peaceful protesters want to leave while others want to stay. “People getting tired but they don’t want to surrender.”
Ken Woo Kwok-wang, acting president of Polytechnic University’s student union told the South China Morning post that between 600 and 700 people were still there. On Monday, journalists were not allowed to enter the university.
On Monday, Hong Kong’s high court ruled a ban on face masks implemented by the government under an emergency regulations ordinance enacted in 1922, as unconstitutional. The ban made wearing any facial coverings during public assembly punishable by prison time and fines.
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Police had earlier 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 directly hit by police 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 tear gas and water cannon at protesters and other supporters who 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.
On Monday, the People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese communit 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 facing its most serious political crisis in decades after the government attempted to push ahead 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. Beijing has issued increasingly severe warnings, and Chinese leader Xi Jinping made his first public remarks on the crisis on Thursday last week, calling on Hong Kong law enforcement to “severely punish” all violent criminals.
Hong Kong’s education bureau said classes, cancelled since last Thursday, would continue to be postponed on Tuesday.
Earlier in the day, police were seen attempting to storm the campus where they subdued and arrested several demonstrators. Protesters responded with a hail of petrol bombs, pushing the police back and setting fire to parts of a school building. Firefighters later put the fire out and some demonstrators were seen trying to douse the flames.