Fears of a potential crackdown or bloody clashes have risen in Hong Kong as the standoff between riot police and protesters at a university in the city enters its third day with up to 200 still trapped.
Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam said about 600 protesters surrendered to authorities overnight, after police allowed two representatives to mediate between the two sides. On Tuesday, around 20 activists were evacuated to seek medical help.
Lam, in her first public remarks since the crisis began more than 36 hours ago, said that 200 of those who surrendered were children and were not arrested. She said however that authorities reserved the right to make further investigations in the future. Lam said the other 400 who left the campus have been arrested.
The campus in Kowloon, has become the focus of the most prolonged and tense confrontation between police and protesters in more than five months of conflict in the semi-autonomous city.
Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets in the last two days in attempt to reach the protesters at the university, prompting intense clashes with riot police firing tear gas and rubber bullets and in a few incidents, live rounds.
Groups of protesters have tried to escape the tight police cordon around the campus. Late Monday, dozens were seen abseiling down a footbridge as police fired tear gas, to drivers on motorbikes who whisked them away. Others have tried to flee through manhole covers.
As Hong Kong’s most political crisis reaches new heights, Beijing has issued increasingly severe warnings, prompting fears of intervention.
Following a Hong Kong court’s ruling that a ban on face masks was unconstitutional, China’s top legislature said only it has the power to rule on the constitutionality of legislation under the city’s Basic Law.
China’s ambassador to Britain, Liu Xiaoming, said on Monday that the Hong Kong government was “trying very hard to put the situation under control”
“But if the situation becomes uncontrollable, the central government would certainly not sit on our hands and watch. We have enough resolution and power to end the unrest.”
An English-language editorial in the state-run Global Times on Tuesday said: “The rule of law can save Hong Kong, but the premise is that the rioters must be punished. The mob’s terror-like violence is bound to be punished.”
Several trains connecting mainland China with Hong Kong have been suspended for Tuesday and Wednesday.
Hong Kong’s new police chief, Chris Tang, took office on Tuesday with a warning that “fake news” was undermining the reputation of his 30,000-strong police force and called for the city’s citizens to help end the turmoil. Tang replaced outgoing Commissioner Stephen Lo, who has presided over months of unrest.
Jasper Tsang, a pro-Beijing politician and former head of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council who helped mediate the surrender of students on Monday, told Reuters there could be bloodshed if the police entered the Polytechnic University campus by force, where they would likely meet strong resistance.
“This is something that we want to avoid,” he said.
Police said they had allowed Red Cross volunteers into the university to ferry out injured protesters but said the rest had no option but to give themselves up.
“Other than coming out to surrender, I don’t see, at the moment, there is a viable option for them,” Cheuk Hau-yip, regional commander of Kowloon West district, told a press conference, adding that police had the ability and resolve to end the standoff peacefully so protesters should not try their luck.