HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong's embattled leader Carrie Lam said on Tuesday that she hoped that a trade-off between police and a banned group of anti-government protesters at a university could be resolved and she had told police to handle it humanely.
A final group of about 100 defiant protesters remain at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, which has been surrounded by police, after more than two days of clashes in which more than 200 people have been injured.
Lam spoke at a news conference shortly after the city's new police chief called on the support of all citizens to end more than five months of unrest, triggered by fears that the Chinese central government is choking the city's special autonomy and freedoms.
In what many will see as an illustration of China's aggravating hold, its highest lawmaker questioned the legality of a Hong Kong ruling that found a proposed ban on face masks worn by protesters was illegal. The legislator said that Hong Kong courts had no power to decide on the constitutionality of city legislation, according to state media outlet Xinhua.
Lam said her government was very much on the "reactive side" when dealing with the protests, but she did not rule out more violence even when she called for peace.
"If the protesters come out in a peaceful way … then there is no situation when this kind of violence would happen," she said.
However, the police would need to take "necessary action" if the situation changed, she said. Lam said she had been shocked that the campus had been turned into "weapons factories".
She said 600 protesters had left the campus, including 200 under the age of 1
The university is the last of five protesters who occupied to use as bases to disrupt the city, blocking the central crossroads tunnel and highways and forcing closures of businesses including shopping malls to say they would put the government under financial pressure.
About a dozen protesters tried to escape through the university's sewer system, according to a Reuters witness who saw them sink into a tunnel with gas masks and plastic sheets to cover their bodies. They could not escape and had to retreat to campus.
"They've made it clear, everyone here will be arrested," said Kelvin, 20, one of the students remaining on campus.
Hundreds of protesters fled the university or surrendered overnight in the midst of fighting on surrounding streets as police fired tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets and protesters lobbied gas bombs and bricks.
At one point, dozens of protesters staged a dramatic escape from the campus by shimmering down plastic hair from a bridge and escaping on waiting motorcycles as police fired projectiles.
Many protesters, some injured, hugged in the main building and waited for medical workers to help them leave. Some said they had three options: surrender to the police, be taken off by ambulance or try to escape.
Many protesters say they are afraid of even more bloodshed without seeing any resolution in view of a resistance force that has seen some of the most intense violence in what has become the worst crisis since Hong Kong's return from British to Chinese rule in 1997
Protesters were initially angered by a now-passed bill that could have sent people to mainland China for trial, but their campaign has been widened to calls for full democracy and an end to what many see as a blend of Beijing in China's freest city.
China states that it is committed to the formula "one country, two systems" that was introduced in 1997 and which grants Hong Kong autonomy and has accused foreign countries, including the United Kingdom and the United States, of employing problems.
The city police deny charges of brutality and say they have shown restraint.
"MASSIVE" LAW CREATING
Newly appointed Police Commissioner Chris Tang warned of an "institutional mismatch ”with which his 30,000 strong force had to contend.
"There is a massive scale of law-breaking in Hong Kong and there is a certain sector in society that also embodies the illegal business," Tang said in a brief public appearance.
He also said that "fake news" undermined the reputation of a force that has long been known as one of Asia's finest.
Hundreds of people, many office workers wearing masks, gathered in the business district on Tuesday afternoon. The police arrested them and the protest was largely peaceful.
Such "flash mob protests" in the heart of the city have happened daily over the past week, but overall the number of people demonstrated has decreased.
But the violence has worsened since last week, when the police shot a protester, a man was set on fire and the financial district was filled with tear gas in the middle of the work day.
The police spokesman said they fired three live rounds early on Monday but no one was injured.
Protesters have torched buildings, infrastructure and stores.
The city's Cross Harbor Tunnel that links the island of Hong Kong to the Kowloon Peninsula remained closed on Tuesday due to extensive damage, authorities said.
Some train services and many roads across Kowloon remained closed. All schools were closed again on Tuesday, which extended a number of closures since last week due to security concerns.
The city's hospital authority reported 221 injuries over the past day, with 12 people in serious condition.
The concern poses the biggest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.
In Washington, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US was "seriously concerned "and the Hong Kong Government had the primary responsibility of returning to peace.
Reporting by Twinnie Siu, Donny Kwok, Clare Jim, Greg Torode, Sharon Tam, Jessie Pang, James Pomfret, Adnan Abidi, Nick Macfie and David Lague; Writing by Farah Master; Editing by Paul Tait and Robert Birsel