HONG KONG (AFP) – Pro-democracy demonstrators holed up in a Hong Kong university campus set the main entrance ablaze yesterday after police warned they may use live rounds, deepening fears over how nearly six months of unrest across the city will end.
The violence extended a dangerous new phase of the crisis, which over the past week has seen schools shut down, roads barricaded and soldiers briefly leave their local barracks to clean up streets.
Yesterday several loud blasts were heard around dawn before a wall of fire lit up an entrance to the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), AFP reporters said, as what appeared to be a police attempt to enter the campus was repelled by protesters determined to hold their ground.
Police said they had fired three live rounds at a protest site near the university but no one appeared to have been hit.
Intense clashes last Sunday saw a police officer hit in the leg by an arrow and protesters meet police tear gas with volleys of petrol bombs.
At the besieged campus, protesters hunkered down under umbrellas from police water cannon, and hurled Molotov cocktails at an armoured vehicle, leaving it ablaze on a flyover near the campus.
Police declared the campus a “riot” scene – rioting is punishable by up to 10 years in jail – and blocked exits as spokesman Louis Lau issued a stark warning.
“I hereby warn rioters not to use petrol bombs, arrows, cars or any deadly weapons to attack police officers,” he said.
“If they continue such dangerous actions, we would have no choice but to use the minimum force necessary, including live rounds, to fire back.”
Hong Kong police routinely carry sidearms, but until now they have only used them in isolated incidents during running street clashes. Three people have been shot, none of them fatally.
Faced with large groups throwing bricks and Molotov cocktails, they have relied on tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets, but the new warning suggests a more proactive use of live rounds.
Fear gripped protesters inside the campus – whose occupation is a twist in tactics by a leaderless movement so far defined by its fluid nature.
One 19-year-old, who gave her name as “K”, said there was desperation among the 200 demonstrators she estimated remained.
“Some people were crying badly, some were furious, some agonising, because they felt hopeless as we were left no way out of the campus.
“We don’t know when the police will storm in.”
A few hundred metres from the campus, protesters erected barricades in the Tsim Sha Tsui and Jordan areas.
One 16-year-old, who gave his name as Joshua, said it was an attempt to draw police attention away from the university.
The nearly six-months of unrest has rocked previously stable Hong Kong, tipping the international financial hub into recession and frightening off tourists.
What began as a series of mostly peaceful demonstrations against a now-shelved Bill to allow extradition has morphed into wider calls for an inquiry into alleged police brutality.