Hong Kong siege turns campus into scorched battleground

Hong Kong (AFP) –


A modern city-centre campus disfigured by fire and strewn with debris, its windows smashed and graffiti covering the red-brick walls -- a Hong Kong university has become the epicentre of the city's nearly six-month crisis.

Cornered and increasingly desperate, a hard core of young pro-democracy protesters found themselves holed up at Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) late Monday, running out of supplies and options, with police waiting outside.

The English word "freedom" was spray-painted in cursive letters on a walkway, where a discarded piece of clothing lay after some protesters had changed their black attire and made a dash for escape.

Many were arrested by riot police who dragged those they caught along a footbridge, striking out with batons and, in incidents filmed and shared on social media, appearing to stamp on the necks of some prone protesters.

What began as an energetic, well supplied and tightly organised campus occupation -- with a stocked and staffed canteen, yoga mats and blankets to sleep on, and a defiant spirit of volunteerism -- gave way to despair as the siege wore on.

Facing arrest or a crackdown and with nowhere to go, the mood among protesters inside the campus was increasingly desolate as night fell on Monday.

Some slumped on chairs, exhausted from two days of running battles. Others cried, consoled by friends.

"There is no way we can get out of the university safely now," said one 19-year-old, without giving a name.

Supplies of bottled water and fresh food were dwindling, while warnings issued by authorities outside were turning increasingly stark.

Calls were made on phones with depleted batteries throughout the day to family, friends and lawyers. One man sitting alone in a canteen broke off from his lunch and sobbed.

Hong Kong's protests started in June in opposition to a now-shelved bill that would have allowed extraditions to China.

But the demonstrations quickly spun out into a wider pro-democracy struggle, and angry calls for police accountability.

- High stakes -

PolyU, which boasts a Zaha Hadid-designed tower and a reputation for advancing working-class students, has in the past two days staged the most sustained and intense clashes seen in nearly half a year of unrest.

Sporadic fires flared throughout Monday around the campus entrances, lit by protesters as defensive barriers.

The stakes for those inside are high.

Police, who have declared the scene a riot zone, on Monday reiterated their threat to charge anyone found inside without good reason with rioting -- which can carry up to 10 years in jail.

Local police commander Cheuk Hau-yip urged protesters to surrender and face the law, warning police would use live rounds if confronted with dangerous weapons.

"Don't press our bottom line," he said in a press conference on Monday.

"I did not do anything that can prove I was involved in the riot," the unnamed 19-year-old student said.

"But I am afraid they will use extreme violence against the people in here."

On Sunday police said an officer was struck in the leg by an arrow. Protesters had seized sports bows from university storerooms and fashioned homemade catapults to fire bricks at police lines from PolyU's rooftop, each successful hit greeted with cheers.

Families of besieged protesters kept up an emotional vigil on a footbridge leading to the campus, many holding placards reading "save the children" and urging the public to help stop the siege.

But for those who escaped through a gauntlet of baton-wielding riot cops on Monday, the fear is that the police are in a mood to press home their advantage.

"They want to grab this chance to catch all the radical protesters," Isaac, 18, who escaped on Monday told AFP.

"We are afraid that if we lose this battle... we lose the whole revolution."