HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s embattled leader Carrie Lam said on Tuesday she hoped a standoff between police and a hold-out group of anti-government protesters at a university could be resolved and she had told police to handle it humanely.
A last group of about 100 defiant protesters remained in the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, which has been surrounded by police, after more than two days of clashes in which more than 200 people have been injured.
Lam spoke at a news conference shortly after the city’s new police chief urged the support of all citizens to end five months of unrest, triggered by fears that the Beijing government is stifling the city’s special autonomy and freedoms.
Lam said her government was very much on the “reactive side” but did not rule out further violence even as she urged peace.
“If the protesters are coming out in a peaceful manner … then there is no situation when that sort of violence would happen,” she said.
However, police would have to take “necessary action” if the situation changed, she said. Lam also said she had been shocked that campuses had been turned into “weapons factories”.
She said 600 protesters had left the campus, including 200 below the age of 18.
The university is the last of five that protesters occupied to use as bases from which to disrupt the city, blocking the central cross-harbour tunnel and main roads and forcing the closure of businesses including shopping centers, in order, they said, to put the government under economic pressure.
Around a dozen protesters tried to flee through the university’s sewerage system on Tuesday morning, according to a Reuters witness who saw them lower themselves into a tunnel wearing gas masks and plastic sheets to cover their bodies.
Hundreds of protesters fled from the university or surrendered overnight amid running battles on surrounding streets as police fired tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets and protesters lobbed petrol bombs and bricks.
At one stage, dozens of mask-wearing protesters staged a dramatic escape from the campus by shimmying down plastic hosing from a bridge and fleeing on waiting motorbikes as police fired projectiles.
Police allowed two prominent figures onto the campus late on Monday to mediate but many protesters refused to leave even though food was running out.
Many protesters, some injured, huddled together inside the main campus building, wearing protective foil covers and blankets to keep themselves warm as they waited for medical workers to help them leave.
Others remaining on campus told Reuters there appeared to be three options left: surrender to the police, be taken away by ambulance or try to flee.
“There have been so many people who have sacrificed for this,” said a 21-year-old university student, who identified himself only as T, after escaping from the university on Tuesday.
Many protesters say they fear even more bloodshed with no resolution in sight to a standoff that has seen some of the most intense violence in what has become the worst crisis since Hong Kong’s return from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
Protesters were initially angered by a now-shelved bill that could have sent people to mainland China for trial but has since broadened into calls for full democracy and an end to what many see meddling by Beijing in China’s freest city.
China says it is committed to the “one country, two systems” formula introduced in 1997 granting Hong Kong autonomy and has accused foreign countries, including Britain and the United States, of inciting trouble.
The city’s police deny accusations of brutality and say they have shown restraint.
But the city’s autonomy was thrown into question after China’s top legislature questioned the power of Hong Kong’s High Court to overturn a government emergency ban on face masks worn by protesters.
A spokesman for the legislative affairs commission of the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress said Hong Kong courts had no power to rule on the constitutionality of the city’s legislation, the state Xinhua news agency reported.
‘MASSIVE’ BREAKING OF LAW
Newly appointed Police Commissioner Chris Tang warned of an “institutional mismatch” with which his 30,000-strong force was having to contend.
“There is a massive scale of breaking of law in Hong Kong and there is a certain sector of the community that also condones that illegal activity,” Tang said in a brief public appearance.
He also said “fake news” was undermining the reputation of a force that had long been known as one of Asia’s finest.
The number of people demonstrating has fallen in recent weeks but clashes have worsened since last week, when police shot a protester, a man was set on fire and the city’s financial district was filled with tear gas in the middle of the workday.
Police spokesmen said they fired three live rounds early on Monday but no one was hurt.
Protesters have torched buildings, infrastructure and shops.
The city’s Cross Harbour Tunnel linking Hong Kong island to the Kowloon peninsula remained shut on Tuesday due to extensive damage, authorities said.
Some train services and many roads across Kowloon remained closed. All schools were shut again on Tuesday, extending a string of closures since last week due to safety concerns.
The city’s hospital authority reported 221 injuries over the past day, with 12 people in serious condition.
The unrest poses the gravest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters the United States was “gravely concerned” and said the Hong Kong government bore primary responsibility for ensuring a return to calm.
Reporting by Twinnie Siu, Donny Kwok, Clare Jim, Greg Torode, Sharon Tam, Jessie Pang, James Pomfret, Adnan Abidi, Nick Macfie and David Lague; Writing by Farah Master; Editing by Paul Tait and Robert Birsel