By Marius Zaharia and Donny Kwok
HONGKONG (Reuters) – Anti-government protesters holed up in a Hong Kong university were frantically searching for escape routes on Tuesday after more than two days of clashes with police and dramatic breakouts by rope and motorcycle.
About 100 protesters were trapped in the Polytechnic University a day after students, some tired and fearful of police storming the campus, tried again and again to flee, only to be beaten back by police firing rubber bullets, water cannon and tear gas.
Some 280 injured were taken to hospital on Tuesday, the Hospital Authority said.
“I just want to leave. I feel very tired,” said Thomas, 20, a student at another university who has been on the campus since the siege began. “I didn’t throw Molotovs. I was here to support the protest. I don’t see anything wrong with it so I wanted to support the students.”
He then walked slowly, with about 10 others, towards the police who bodysearched and arrested him. He had the phone numbers of lawyers written on his right forearm.
Police have made about 1,100 arrests in the past 24 hours on charges including rioting and possession of offensive weapons, they said. The total since June is more than 5,000.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said she hoped the standoff could be resolved and she had told police to handle it humanely.
Lam spoke shortly after the Chinese-ruled city’s new police chief urged the support of all citizens to end more than five months of unrest triggered by fears that China’s central government is stifling the former British colony’s special autonomy and freedoms, including its independent judiciary.
Hundreds of them fled from the university or surrendered overnight and on Monday amid running battles on nearby streets where protesters threw petrol bombs and rocks at police.
Some made it out by rope and motorcycle.
“Some rioters were seen escaping by abseiling off a footbridge to getaway vehicles below,” police said in a statement. “Our officers gave chase and were able to interrupt 37 of them including the drivers.”
About a dozen tried and failed to flee through the university’s sewers. A Reuters witness saw them lower themselves into a tunnel wearing gas masks and plastic sheets, but the tunnel was too narrow.
Six protesters, led by a male in full black body armour wielding a hammer, probed one of the exits on Tuesday, before deciding there were too many police around.
“We will keep trying,” one of the group, dressed all in black, said without giving his name. “It’s better than staying here.”
On the sprawling campus in the Kowloon district, despair prevailed amid the shriek of fire alarms.
“I feel I’m in trouble,” said a 22-year-old who gave his name as Marcus, sitting with two friends in the canteen at a table piled with dirty dishes and plastic cups.
“We keep trying to think how to escape, but every time we pick a spot we see many police nearby,” Marcus said.
“But if we give up, we’re finished.”
In the campus central square, a giant “SOS” call for help was spelled out in pink, blue and yellow bath towels.
The university is the last of five that protesters occupied to use as bases from which to disrupt the city, blocking the Cross-Harbour Tunnel outside and other main roads.
In what many will see as an illustration of Beijing’s tightening grip, China’s legislature questioned the legality of a Monday Hong Kong court ruling that a ban on face masks worn by protesters was unlawful.
The National People’s Congress (NPC) said Hong Kong courts had no power to rule on the constitutionality of city legislation, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
Lam said her government was very much on the “reactive side” in dealing with the protests but she did not rule out more violence even as she urged peace. Lam said she had been shocked that campuses had been turned into “weapons factories”.
Lam said 600 protesters had left the campus, including 200 below the age of 18.
Many protesters say they fear more bloodshed in a standoff that has seen some of the most intense violence in the worst crisis since Hong Kong’s return from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
The U.N. human rights office said some demonstrators’ resorting to extreme violence, including against police, was “deeply regrettable and cannot be condoned”.
One woman said her son was inside the campus with his girlfriend and they would come out but for the fear of facing charges of rioting, which can carry a 10-year sentence.
“I know the young people see there are many unrighteous things in society, they want to do something to change it,” said the woman, who gave her name as Chan, 50.
“But as parents, we only have one wish. We only want all of them to come home safely.”
Protesters were initially angered by a now-withdrawn bill that could have sent people to mainland China for trial. Their campaign has broadened into calls for full democracy and an end to what many see as meddling by Beijing in China’s freest city.
China says it is committed to the “one country, two systems” formula, under which Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule, and has accused foreign countries of inciting trouble.
The unrest poses the gravest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.
(Reporting by Twinnie Siu, Donny Kwok, Clare Jim, Greg Torode, Sharon Tam, Jessie Pang, James Pomfret, Adnan Abidi, Nick Macfie and David Lague, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Farah Master, Tony Munroe and Nick Macfie; Editing by Giles Elgood)