HONG KONG - Police briefly stormed a university campus held by anti-government protesters early Monday, making arrests and threatening to meet further resistance with live rounds before retreating in the face of a growing fire - a stunning new escalation in the six-month-long struggle for democracy that has moved in recent days to this territory's campuses.
The demonstrators, who spent Sunday countering police water cannons of stinging blue dye with petrol bombs, held their ground early Monday morning, local time. Just before daybreak, officers from a special tactical unit entered the campus and made dozens of arrests, according to local news reporters at the site. Then a live feed showed a university entrance engulfed in flames. Demonstrators were feeding the fire to hold off police.
The confrontation showed that many young protesters have followed a steady path of radicalization as the movement presses forward with significant public support. Although police insist on ending the protests and neutralizing their core of front-line activists, it grows increasingly unclear where the unrest will lead, how it will end and whether the damage can be undone.
The protesters at Hong Kong Polytechnic University rained Molotov cocktails down on riot police officers and their vehicles Sunday in one of the longest days of fighting since the demonstrations began in June. One police media liaison officer was struck in the calf with an arrow. Skirmishes raged into the night, leaving the air thick with tear gas and a police vehicle burning.
As police tried to move in on the campus, they warned that stronger measures could follow. They sealed the exits, leaving hundreds of students trapped inside the university.
"We will use the minimal force," police said in a Facebook video. "We are asking the rioters to stop assaulting the police using cars, gas bombs and bows and arrows. Otherwise we will use force, including live rounds."
In a video widely shared on social media, a protester in a raincoat and a full-face respirator said he would stay at the university "until the end."
"What will happen to [the students] if we leave?" he asked. "I am so afraid, but I have no choice."
Police said early Monday that they were trying to disperse and arrest "a large gang of rioters" who "hurled petrol bombs at police" and "set objects ablaze." In a statement, police said they did not "raid" the campus.
"Fires were observed in various locations in the PolyU premises. Explosives, flammable substances and dangerous goods also pose threats to anyone therein," police said. "Police appeal to everyone inside the campus to leave immediately."
In a message released Monday morning, Hong Kong Polytechnic University President Teng Jin-Guang said he had negotiated with police through the night to reach an agreement: Officers would refrain from using force if protesters did not instigate clashes.
"We have now received the assurance of police of a temporary suspension of the use of force under the condition that if the protesters do not initiate the use of force, the police will not initiate the use of force," Teng said. He added that he would personally accompany protesters who left the campus peacefully to the police station to ensure that they would be treated fairly.
By early Monday, police had not used live ammunition at the university. Elsewhere, police fired several rounds at protesters who were pelting officers in an ambulance with bricks, but bullets hit no one, according to witnesses and a video of the incident.
A spokesman for the police force did not immediately confirm the use of live rounds.
A front-line officer, speaking on condition of anonimity, said the police strategy was to surround the campus, block the exits, and wait for the demonstrators to leave.
The current pro-democracy movement was sparked by a bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam eventually scrapped that legislation, but not before the movement had grown to include the demand that the people be allowed to vote for their own leaders and remain autonomous from Beijing. For many here, the events of the past months have eroded their trust in the territory's institutions - and the police in particular - while giving rise to a new generation of young protesters who believe this to be the defining fight of their lives.
The all-day standoff began early, with police pummeling front-line protesters with volleys of tear gas and water cannons that streamed irritating blue liquid. Protesters responded with petrol bombs.
Much of the battle centered on the bridge leading to campus from the nearby metro station, which protesters had filled with barricades. As night fell, they repeatedly set it alight to prevent the police from advancing onto the university.
Police announced at 9 p.m. that the "next round of operation" was beginning, leading to speculation they would storm the campus. They threatened to arrest those involved on charges of rioting, which can incur penalties of up to 10 years in prison.
University authorities had implored students not to engage in violence. In a statement, they said they were "gravely concerned that the spiraling radical illicit activities will cause not only a tremendous safety threat on campus, but also class suspension over an indefinite period of time."
The university in Kowloon is next to a key cross-harbor tunnel that protesters blocked in recent days by setting fire to toll booths. Universities have become the latest flash points in the protests that have rocked this semiautonomous territory to its core.
In the face of an increasingly violent police crackdown, protesters have taken up an eclectic spectrum of weapons, including bows and arrows and javelins - probably appropriated from campus athletic departments.
In Sunday's battles, though, protesters' key weapon appeared to be gas bombs. At one point, a police van speeding toward their barricades was set alight by a flurry of molotov cocktails and forced to retreat.
Polytechnic University was one of the last campus strongholds following an intense week of protests centered on the city's universities. The clashes over the past week, which unusually spilled into the workweek, were prompted by the death of a young protester following a police operation earlier this month.
After police laid siege to the Chinese University of Hong Kong last week, protesters barricaded other campuses as well as major roads, drawing the city and schools to a halt.
On Saturday, members of the People's Liberation Army, China's military, left their barracks to help clear the roadblocks that protesters had erected around universities. It was the PLA's first appearance on the streets of Hong Kong since the pro-democracy protests erupted in June.
As a semiautonomous territory, Hong Kong is legally distinct from mainland China. Although the army's presence here was not unprecedented - it also appeared in September 2018 to assist with disaster relief after a severe hit from Typhoon Mangkhut - the move was a subtle but significant development. Under Hong Kong law, the PLA may not interfere in local affairs unless invited by the Hong Kong government.
On Saturday, the Hong Kong government denied that it had invited the PLA to clear the roadblocks, saying the work was a "voluntary community activity," according to Chinese state-owned CGTN. The development drew sharp criticism from pro-democracy lawmakers, who said it was illegal and a public relations stunt by Beijing to normalize the army's presence in the territory.
Lawmaker Cheng Chung-Tai, a graduate of Polytechnic University, called the standoff there a "humanitarian crisis."
"Carrie Lam's murderous regime has resorted to brutality, which makes Hong Kong become a state of savage existence and astonishes the international communities," he said in a statement early Monday.
At a peaceful rally Sunday in Hong Kong's central business district, Alex, who gave only his first name for fear of retribution, said the involvement of the PLA was unacceptable.
"They cannot be volunteers because they are soldiers," said the 35-year-old clerk. "They're conveying a message that they will be going out. They will take action if the situation is not getting better."
The Education Bureau announced that all Monday classes would be canceled. Classes were suspended for most of last week as protests and a strike paralyzed the city. Two university campuses have called off classes for the rest of the semester.
Freelance journalists Tiffany Liang and Timothy McLaughlin contributed to this report.