HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong police lay siege on Monday to a university where hundreds of anti-government protesters were bunkered down with petrol bombs and other homemade weapons, amid fears of a bloody crackdown and U.S. calls for restraint.
Police fired volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets to force back dozens of protesters who tried to escape the besieged campus of Polytechnic University, after a night of mayhem in which major roads and a police armored van were set alight and a police officer was shot with an arrow.
Dozens of protesters were arrested near the university on Monday morning, public broadcaster RTHK reported, while in the nearby commercial area of Nathan Road activists stopped traffic and forced shopping malls and stores to shut.
“We’ve been trapped here for too long. We need all Hong Kongers to know we need help,” said Dan, a 19-year-old protester on the campus, as he burst into tears.
“I don’t know how much longer we can go on like this. We may need international help.”
Thirty eight people were injured overnight on Sunday, the city’s Hospital Authority said. Reuters witnesses saw some protesters suffer burns from chemicals in the jets fired from police water cannons.
“Remember you have life in your hands. Why do you need to push us to death?” one person shouted at police from a campus rooftop as protesters wearing gas masks and clutching umbrellas looked for ways to escape the university.
Live video showed protesters with their hands tied behind their backs sitting cross-legged on a road as riot police stood guard in one of the busiest commercial and tourist districts.
Police said they fired three live rounds when “rioters” attacked two officers who were attempting to arrest a woman. No one was injured in the incident and the woman escaped.
Police had earlier warned they were ready to use live bullets if “rioters” continued to used lethal weapons, amid a dramatic escalation of the unrest that has plunged the Asian financial hub into chaos for almost six months.
Demonstrators angry at what they see as Chinese meddling in the former British colony have said they are responding to excessive use of force by police.
The United States condemned the “unjustified use of force” in Hong Kong and called on Beijing to protect Hong Kong’s freedom, a senior official in President Donald Trump’s administration said.
“We condemn the unjustified use of force and urge all sides to refrain from violence and engage in constructive dialogue,” the official said.
Chinese soldiers in a base close to the university were seen on Sunday monitoring developments at the university with binoculars, some dressed in riot gear.
The city’s Cross Harbour Tunnel linking Hong Kong island to the Kowloon peninsula remained shuttered and protesters torched a footbridge that crosses the highway to the tunnel, authorities said.
Some train services and many roads across the Kowloon peninsula remained closed. All schools were shut.
Office workers weaved through debris including umbrellas, bricks and bamboo sticks as police tried to clear the roads to make way for traffic.
NIGHT OF VIOLENCE
As police approached the barricaded front gate of the university in the predawn hours, protesters retreated into the campus and started fires at the gate and a footbridge.
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 to 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.
University President Teng Jin-Guang said he had brokered a truce with police to allow protesters to leave the campus peacefully, however it was unclear whether a truce was taking effect.
Some of those 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 tear gas. Some stripped down to their underwear after 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.
Chinese troops in shorts and T-shirts, some carrying red plastic buckets or brooms, emerged from their barracks on Saturday in a rare public appearance to help clean up debris.
Chinese troops have appeared on Hong Kong’s streets only once since 1997, to help clear up after a typhoon last year.
The unrest in Hong Kong poses the gravest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012. Xi has said he is confident Hong Kong’s government can resolve the crisis.
Beijing denies interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs and has blamed foreign influences for the unrest.
Reporting by Marius Zaharia, James Pomfret, Josh Smith, Jessie Pang, Joyce Zhou, Donny Kwok, Anne Marie Roantree, Twinnie Siu, Greg Torode, Kate Lamb and Tom Lasseter; Writing by Nick Macfie and Farah Master; Editing by Stephen Coates