Protesters threw flaming projectiles at the police from behind barricades.Credit…Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times
HONG KONG — Hundreds of Hong Kong activists armed with petrol bombs and bows-and-arrows on Monday battled riot police who have laid a days-long siege to a university, the most violent confrontation yet in a half-year of protests.
Early Monday, the police tried storming the campus at the main entrance and made some arrests. But the occupiers fought back with dozens of petrol bombs and set barricades ablaze, forcing the police to retreat.
As day broke, the occupiers and the police were still locked in the standoff at Hong Kong Polytechnic University that began Saturday night, and smoke billowed from the grounds. Some protesters on Monday morning raced for the exits, only to be met with volleys of tear gas.
The police used tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannons and armored vehicles to try breach the barricades all day on Sunday. But activists resisted into the night. One police officer was hit in the leg by an arrow, while student leaders said protesters suffered eye injuries and hypothermia after being struck by the water cannon.
The clashes were the culmination of the most disruptive week of the monthslong protests, a period that has focused a global spotlight on the growing desperation of the pro-democracy activists and aggressive efforts by the police to suppress them. It is a sign the conflict is turning more violent as the territory prepares to hold elections later this month.
The activists are struggling against the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing to preserve autonomy for Hong Kong, a political system guaranteed for 50 years by an agreement between Beijing and London. The British handed over the global financial hub in 1997.
The rising tensions and the potential for greater control over Hong Kong’s political and legal systems by the Communist Party have raised questions over the long-term commercial viability of Hong Kong and the integrity of its fraying social fabric.
In Washington, American officials said they were monitoring the clashes as well as reviewing a report by The New York Times on leaked internal Communist Party documents showing how party leaders, including President Xi Jinping, had set up internment camps to hold one million or more Muslims in another frontier area, Xinjiang.
Trump administration officials and Congress have been holding discussions on whether to impose separate sets of sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials for human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. But President Trump has held back for fear of upsetting trade talks.
Hong Kong is scheduled to hold district council elections next Sunday. Some residents worry the government might postpone the vote, though Carrie Lam, the chief executive of the territory, has said the elections will be held on time.
A small number of supporters of Communist Party rule, as well as Hu Xijin, the chief editor of Global Times, a state-run news organization in Beijing, had become so outraged by the Sunday clashes that they said the police should use live ammunition.
The occupation of the university has forced a weeklong shutdown of a tunnel leading to the business districts on Hong Kong Island from Kowloon, and activists said they planned more traffic blockades on Monday.
The university president, Jin-Guang Teng, said Monday morning that he had negotiated a temporary truce with the police, but suggested occupiers still would have to turn themselves in to the police after leaving the campus.
The clashes of the past week began when protesters changed from a regular routine of weekend protests to disrupting traffic on workdays. The disruptions and attempts by the police to breach campuses — considered a last refuge by activists — quickly led to protesters occupying five universities, two of which sit astride key transportation routes.
The police arrested dozens trying to flee, including first-aid volunteers. Mainstream supporters of the movement drove to the campus to try to get the police to back off. On Sunday night, the police threatened to use lethal force if the protesters did not leave.
“I know that there is a possibility that the police will fire live bullets on us tonight, but right now, we have no choice,” William Lau, 22, a protester on campus, said around midnight. He estimated there were about 500 activists on site at that time.
About 50 were arrested after trying to leave, he said, so others were wary of trying to exit.
“The police would never just let us walk out like that,” he said. “I know that some want to leave now but don’t know how, while a fair number want to stay and fight.”
Right outside the campus, pro-democracy lawmakers, a top Roman Catholic official, an American pastor and a student leader called on the Hong Kong government to intervene to prevent bloodshed.
“I want to seek help from the government to stop the police force from their operation and avoid tragedy,” said Owan Li, a student representative on the university council.
As the police fired tear gas, Bishop Joseph Ha tried entering with the lawmakers and the American pastor, William Devlin of the Bronx, but were turned away by the police.
“If the police are to launch a clearance, they should use as minimal force as possible because lives are precious,” Mr. Ha said.
Mr. Devlin said in a telephone interview that he had been on campus for about four hours as the clashes unfolded and had left, but was trying to re-enter.
“They were not being deterred,” he said of the protesters. “They were ready to be arrested. They said, ‘We stand for freedom, dignity, democracy, human rights.’”
Mr. Devlin said he had been on the front line in the late afternoon Sunday when the police used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons against protesters.
He said he had seen protesters throw 10 to 20 petrol bombs to deter the police from advancing. At least two were armed with bows and arrows, he said.
Louis Lau, the police superintendent, said before midnight that an officer had fired a live round at a vehicle charging toward officers in an area near campus.
“Coldblooded rioters can only imitate terror acts,” he said.
Protesters confronted the police throughout the night in nearby neighborhoods to try to draw them away from the campus. The presidents of five universities released a statement calling for restraint by all sides and asking everyone on the campus to leave.
Denise Ho, a pro-democracy pop singer who has been banned on the mainland by Beijing, invoked the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre on Twitter and said, “World, please help Hong Kong and save our students!”
The police tried sending an armored vehicle across a bridge on the east side of campus. Protesters set the vehicle on fire with petrol bombs, forcing it to retreat.
Mr. Hu, the chief editor of Global Times, posted a video of the vehicle aflame on Twitter and said, “Police should be permitted to fire live rounds in this case to counter rioters.”
The violence came after protesters at the university on Friday prepared for a long siege, as they poured gasoline into glass bottles to make hundreds or thousands of bombs and practiced throwing those into an empty swimming pool. They also did target practice with catapult-style slingshots and bows-and-arrows.
The police began advancing around 10 p.m. Saturday, and the clashes reached a high pitch on Sunday afternoon.
In nearby Kowloon Tong on Saturday, Chinese soldiers jogged out of their barracks by Hong Kong Baptist University and cleared bricks from streets that had been placed there by protesters to block traffic.
The soldiers wore T-shirts and basketball jerseys, and carried brooms. The Hong Kong garrison of the People’s Liberation Army is based in 19 sites once occupied by the British military. Even though Chinese troops have been stationed in Hong Kong since 1997, they almost never venture into the city.
The cleanup, which was lauded by Chinese state-run news organizations, prompted a torrent of criticism from local residents. Pro-democracy lawmakers issued a statement saying that the local government and the Chinese military had ignored restrictions imposed on the troops by local laws.
Edward Wong reported from Washington, and Mike Ives, Tiffany May and Katherine Li reported from Hong Kong. Paul Mozur and Ezra Cheung contributed reporting from Hong Kong.
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