HONG KONG (AP) — Police tightened their siege of a university campus where hundreds of protesters remained trapped Monday night in the latest dramatic episode in months of protests against growing Chinese control over the semi-autonomous city.
The pitched battle for control of the campus of Hong Kong Polytechnic University has been the focus of the latest protests as demonstrators for days fortified the campus to keep the police out. Now cornered by security forces determined to arrest them, they desperately tried to get out but faced a cordon of officers armed with tear gas and water cannons.
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.
Officers repelled one escape attempt early Monday with tear gas, driving hundreds of protesters back onto the campus. Later, huge crowds of supporters advanced on foot toward the police from outside the cordon to try to disrupt the police operation.
Some protesters descended by ropes from a footbridge to a road below, where they were met by motorbike riders trying to help them flee as police fired tear gas. It was unclear whether they got away safely.
Throughout the day, multiple protests disrupted traffic in the Asian financial center, where schools remained closed because of safety concerns stemming from the demonstrations, which began in June but have become increasingly violent in recent weeks.
Local council elections scheduled for Sunday were at risk of being delayed because of the unrest, said Patrick Nip, Hong Kong’s secretary for constitutional affairs.
“The situation in the past weekend has obviously reduced the chance of holding the election as scheduled. And I am very anxious about this,” Nip said, adding that the government “won’t take this step unless absolutely necessary.”
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, adding that police have the ability and resolve to end the standoff.
While both sides dug in at the campus, protest supporters rallied across Kowloon in an attempt to reach the police cordon around the university and disrupt the security operation to help those trapped inside. But they were met by riot police firing tear gas, turning the busy streets teeming with apartment blocks into a battle zone.
Riot officers broke into one university entrance before dawn Monday as fires raged inside and outside, but they didn’t appear to get very far. Fiery explosions could be seen as protesters responded with gasoline bombs. Police, who have warned that everyone in the area could be charged with rioting, reportedly made a handful of arrests.
The protesters made gains, meanwhile, on a legal front when the high court struck down a ban on face masks 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 brought charges against protesters 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.
The head of a nationalistic Chinese newspaper said Hong Kong police should use snipers to fire live ammunition at violent protesters.
“If the rioters are killed, the police should not have to bear legal responsibility,” Global Times editor Hu Xijin wrote on his Weibo social media account.
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 wore gas masks. Two walked about with bows and 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 few hundred protesters streamed out of the campus early Monday in an apparent bid to escape, but they were driven back by police tear gas. Some wearing gas masks calmly picked up smoking tear gas canisters and dropped them into heavy-duty bags, but the protesters decided to retreat with a phalanx of officers lined up across the road in the distance.
Other protesters blocked a major road not far from the Polytechnic campus to distract police and help those inside the campus escape.
They tossed paving stones onto stretches of Nathan Road as police chased them with tear gas. An injured woman arrested for participating in an unlawful assembly escaped after protesters stopped her ambulance and hurled rocks and bricks inside.
Police issued a “wanted” notice for the 20-year-old woman and said anyone who aided her could be charged with assisting an offender, which can be punished by up to 10 years in prison.
The 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.
Associated Press journalist Dake Kang contributed to this report.