A police vehicle catches fire after being hit with Molotov cocktails on Sunday [Athit Perawongmetha/AP]
Hong Kong police stormed a university campus that protesters had made their stronghold just before dawn on Monday firing repeated rounds of tear gas and water cannon as fires raged and raising concerns of a bloody showdown in the southern Chinese city.
As riot police moved in on the Polytechnic University from all sides, some protesters retreated inside the campus, while others set fires at the main gate as well as on bridges leading to it. Some also launched petrol bombs from catapults triggering fiery explosions.
Police who have warned that everyone in the area could be charged with rioting reportedly made a handful of arrests. Some people were taken away in ambulances.
At daybreak, protesters remained in control of most of the campus, which Al Jazeera’s Sarah Clarke in Hong Kong described as a “fortress”. Some discussed trying to leave while others reinforced barricades built largely of chairs and tables and carried boxes of petrol bombs to shore up positions elsewhere on the site.
Thousands of residents and protesters flocked overnight to various districts around the university including Tsim Sha Tsui, Jordan and Yau Ma Tei to try and get through police lines to rescue those inside.
Earlier a police officer was hit in the leg by an arrow.
Police said the weapon struck a media liaison officer and he was taken to a hospital. Photos on the department’s Facebook page showed the arrow sticking out of the back of the officer’s lower leg through his trousers.
In a statement on Monday, police warned people to stop using lethal weapons to attack officers and to halt other acts of violence, saying officers would respond with force and live bullets if necessary.
“Rioters continue to launch hard objects and petrol bombs with large catapults at police officers,” Hong Kong police said. “The shooting range of such large catapults can reach up to 40 metres … Police warn that the violent activities in the Hong Kong Polytechnic University have escalated to rioting.”
Elsewhere in the city, black-clad protesters roamed streets around the popular tourist area of Nathan Road before dawn while three young women pushed a trolley of petrol bombs down one of the city’s busiest tourist districts.
Others dug up paving slabs and used bricks to block roads, some chanting: “Liberate HK, revolution of our time.”
Although the proposed law has now been withdrawn, public anger has been fuelled by the authorities’ refusal to address protesters’ demands for an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality; an amnesty for those charged with offences stemming from the protests; a retraction of police claims that protesters are guilty of rioting; and giving Hong Kong people the right to elect the entire legislature as well as the chief executive.
The surge in violence over the past week has severely disrupted life in Hong Kong with the closure of the Cross-Harbour Tunnel next to the Polytechnic University and train services suspended.
But while that has become a huge source of frustration to ordinary people many still back the protesters, said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS, in London.
“Most people would hope that it would soon be over, but on the other hand (they think) the demands of the protesters are justifiable so they still support them,” he told Al Jazeera. “We will see more resistance on the part of the protesters, but the government in Hong Kong and the government in Beijing will not try to reach out for a political compromise so we are looking at a further escalation.”
Chinese soldiers in a base close to the university were seen on Sunday monitoring developments with binoculars, some dressed in riot gear.
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.
The presence on the streets of soldiers from China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), even to clean up, risks stoking the controversy about Hong Kong’s status as an autonomous area. Chinese troops have appeared on Hong Kong’s streets only once since 1997 to help clear up after a typhoon last year.
Roderic Wye, an associate fellow of the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House, said the leadership in Hong Kong has failed to respond to the “very serious fears” of the young people in the territory over increasing control by Beijing.
“The Hong Kong government has all along decided to treat this as a law-and-order matter and has had no willingness to negotiate or talk or listen in any serious way to the demands of the protesters. At the end of the day, there has to be some kind of political solution,” Wye told Al Jazeera.
‘Fighting for Hong Kong’
In the university courtyard, civil engineer Joris, 23, said he was prepared to go to jail in his fight against the government. Those shooting arrows were protecting themselves, he said.
“The protesters have been reacting to the police,” he told Reuters. “We haven’t fought back as much as we could. I would be prepared for jail. We are fighting for Hong Kong.”
Reuters reported a high-pitched wailing came from at least one police vehicle, suggesting a new tactic to try to clear the crowds. Police confirmed the use of a “long-range acoustic device”.
Many protesters wore gas masks or tied handkerchiefs over their mouths and noses to protect themselves from clouds of tear gas. Some stripped down to their underwear after earlier dousings from water cannon that witnesses said contained an irritant.
An armoured police vehicle that was set ablaze by petrol bombs in Sunday’s violence was towed away early on Monday.
Many others trapped on the sprawling red-brick campus close to the city’s harbour said they would never surrender.