HONG KONG (Reuters) – For three days last week, anti-government protesters camp out at Hong Kong's burgeoning polytechnic university prepared for what they feared could be a bloody, even deadly, fight with the police. . revolutionary graffiti spray painted on the walls, the black-clad protesters in gas masks sawed metal poles for batons and practiced firing stones from a makeshift catapult. Nearby, others ferried around boxes of gas bombs and wrapped the arrows in fabric to stop.
On Saturday, the battle began when police moved in to clear the campus and protesters responded with traces of stones and gas bombs, leaving parts of the university in flames.
After more than five months of protests demanding greater democratic freedoms amid growing concern over Chinese influence in Hong Kong, the demonstrations have taken a sudden and dangerous turn and swallowed the city's university for the first time.
On five campuses in Chinese-controlled territory, students armed with their university medieval weapons transformed their rebel strongholds, among a growing sentiment of many who maintained peaceful protests were meaningless. On the other side of the barricades and beyond the flames of burning debris, there were rows of insurgent police, armed with batons, tear gas and rubber bullets.
Most of the universities were removed from protesters over the weekend. But the discovery between police and protesters at Polytechnic University painted on Tuesday, as officers maintained a siege around campus, where about 1
Over the past week, Reuters journalists have covered the violent confrontations at four universities in Hong Kong, including Polytechnic, as an increasingly militant protest movement suddenly changed tactics.
'FIRE MAGICIANS' AND CATAPULTS
Towards the end of last week, as many as a thousand students occupied the polytechnic campus. But the number dropped over the next two days, as protesters feared that the police would occupy the campus.
However, preparations did not decrease. In the cafeteria, tables were filled with supplies – bottles of bottled water, energy drinks, chocolates, torches, toothbrushes and power banks. Outside, a team produced petrol bombs, while the university's archery team provided improvised lessons on how to draw a bow.
Team of "fire magicians", tasked with lobbing gasoline bombs on the police in the front line, practiced by throwing empty bottles into the university's drained pool.
The campus is located in a strategic location adjacent to the Cross Harbor Tunnel, an important artery connecting the Kowloon Peninsula to the island of Hong Kong that had been barricaded by protesters. One purpose of the polytechnic occupation was to keep the tunnel closed, protesters said.
Protesters who poured into the university last week encountered what had become a small village on campus. Hot food was served in the cafeteria, where signs were placed and asked the media not to take photographs so that tired young men and women could throw up their masks to eat and talk. Nearby, others dropped on yoga mats scattered across a basketball court.
Among the protesters there was also a growing sense of suspicion about the looming battle with the police.
"Once you get out, you know that anything can happen, especially when you're in the front line, even real bullets," said Chen, a 21-year-old student and one of the "fire magicians." To prepare for the worst, Chen, who only gave his last name, said he had recently written a will.
The occupations of the struggle began on November 11 after the police fired an anti-government protest during a demonstration.
Widespread street protests in Hong Kong escalated in June following an outbreak of public outrage over perceived violations of Hong Kong's autonomy by the Chinese government. The trigger was a bill introduced by the Hong Kong government that would have allowed the extradition of suspects to the mainland for trial.
The bill has since been withdrawn, but anger has only grown over the government's perceived indifference to the protesters' demands, which includes an independent investigation into alleged police brutality and amnesty for arrested protesters.
Hong Kong's leader, Carrie Lam, has said she would not be ousted by violence to yield to the protesters' demands. On Tuesday, she said she hoped the university's distance would soon cease and that she was shocked that the campus had been turned into "weapons factories."
In response to questions from Reuters, Lam's office said: "The CEO has made it clear on various occasions that violence is not a solution to any problem."
Hong Kong Police Force did not respond to Reuters questions.
Fear that police were preparing to enter universities and arrest students involved in protests sparked an online appeal to protect the campus and attracted an influx of young protesters. While on campus, they began preparing weapons and fire bombs, blocking the nearby roads that prevented people from coming to work in an attempt to construct a general strike.
And they dug in.
It marked a significant tactical shift for the protesters, whose motto has been "be like water", a philosophy of being flexible that has underpinned the leaderless wildcat protests. The protesters had used Hong Kong's topography to their advantage, gathering on busy city streets with plenty of escape routes, making it difficult for police to seize more than a few at a time.
The polytechnic occupiers set up barricades and walls of brick and cement of their own manufacture. But being chased down meant that they would be caught on campus, with the police standing ready to arrest charges that had heavy prison sentences: riots, violations and theft of public property.
Police began their siege of Polytechnic on Saturday. By Tuesday, they said they had "arrested and registered" about 1,100 people in and around the university. Some people tried to slip past the police guard dramatically: by draining or abseiling down a rope hanging from a bridge.
However, a hard core of about 100 remained according to Reuters estimates.
AN APPEAL FOR VIOLENCE
On Tuesday, Hong Kong's new police chief, Chris Tang, asked for support from all citizens to help stop the riots by condemning acts of violence.
Many of the protesters interviewed on college campuses over the past week expressed a sense of meaninglessness and said that non-violent opposition did not prove effective.
"We are not destroying things for nothing," said Yip, a 21-year-old polytechnic student, standing in the middle of campus rubbish. She just gave her last name. "This is the only way we can fight for freedom."
Others said they were frustrated by the fact that nothing had happened after the "Umbrella Protest" in 2014, when protesters occupied the city's streets for 11 weeks. The call for greater democracy was followed by an erosion of the freedoms in the city, they said.
Most said their tactics were motivated by what they see as the brutal force used by the police to stop the protests.
"We only do this to protect ourselves," said Chen, "the fire magician." "I don't think we use violence, we only police the police."
Lee, a 20-year-old nursing student, joined the protests in June and took to the streets to peacefully demonstrate against the extradition proposal. .
On Saturday afternoon, she sat on a terrace at Polytechnic where young men and women threw gas bombs at the police on the street below. Unlike the protesters around her, Lee & # 39; s face was not covered under a pair of pigs – she had taken off her mask to sip on a juice box.
When asked about the violence, she told the police that "they do not follow the rules – every time we try to be peaceful, they create new problems."
"There must be somebody here to defend the things we deserve," she said.
Later in the evening, four young men with metal-pointed arrows rushed out to the same place, pulled back the strings in their bows, and sent the missiles scattering in
The campus occupation movement began at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, located off the mountains overlooking Kowloon in the new territories, and on November 11, hundreds of protesters began to build campuses there. and blocked by a nearby highway with bricks and branches.
After several days away, police moved in, breaking up barricades and releasing tear gas. Protesters released a hail of gasoline bombs and set fire to a bridge that crossed the highway.
From the Chinese university, protests quickly sprang to other campuses, including Hong Kong Polytechnic
Last week, the police mainly succeeded in clearing demonstrators from the universities – except from Polytechnic.
For several days, protesters at the polytechnics waited for the police attack. Then, on Saturday, police finally made a move, blocked streets and fired tear gas bowls. Then came water cannons that sprayed the campus with streams of blue dye containing an irritant that makes the skin itch. Protesters who got soaked were undressed in their underwear as their comrades snared them.
About 100 protesters with umbrellas and gasoline bombs led a charge against the police lines, backing the deployment of their makeshift weapons behind them, as locals gathered on the street corners to watch.
A police officer was rushed to hospital after being shot in the leg with an arrow.
On Sunday, as a government helicopter orbited around campus, police adopted a new strategy that sealed the surrounding roads to prevent protesters from escaping. Officers warned that they were ready to use live bullets if protesters used deadly weapons.
Thirty-eight people were injured in the siege, including traces of tear gas, water cannons and gasoline bombs. A police car and the university entrance were set on fire.
On Tuesday, there seemed to be only about 100 protesters left at the university.
One of them, a man who gave his name as Sun, said he did not plan to leave. "There are people out there who have been beaten until their heads bloody, it's not fair to them," he said. "Those staying here, we have to endure."
Reporting by Kate O. & # 39; Donnell Lamb, Jessie Pang and Tom Lasseter in Hong Kong; further reporting contributed by Sarah Wu. Editing by Philip McClellan