Wires

Options narrow for last Hong Kong campus protesters as arrests take a toll

Marius Zaharia and Jessie Pang

HONG KONG, Nov 20 (Reuters) - The last band of anti-government protesters trapped inside a besieged Hong Kong university were weighing a narrowing range of options early on Wednesday as police outside appeared ready to simply wait them out.

Reuters witnesses said fewer than 100 protesters remained inside the Hong Kong Polytechnic University after more than 1,000 were arrested since late on Monday.

Some simply surrendered, while others were nabbed in escape attempts that included trying to clamber down ropes onto waiting motorbikes or sneak through sewer pipes.

Police searched for potential escapees overnight with spotlights rather than using the tear gas and rubber bullets that had marked clashes in recent days, heeding calls from Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam for a humane end to a siege that saw the most intense clashes since the protests escalated more than five months ago.

They also tightened barricades in the streets surrounding the university, making them secure enough to be visited late on Tuesday night by the force's new commissioner, Chris Tang, at the end of his first day on the job.

Tang earlier urged the support of all citizens to end the unrest triggered by fears that China's central government is stifling the former British colony's freedoms and extensive autonomy guaranteed in its handover to Chinese rule in 1997.

Chinese leaders say they are committed to the "one country, two systems" formula and have accused foreign countries, including Britain and the United States, of stirring up trouble.

The unrest marks the most serious popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.

Some protesters emerged as the sun rose above the campus after a night spent sleeping on yoga mats to express a range of feelings, from defiance to uncertainty.

Others mulled hiding in the maze of campus buildings, as they said a teacher had advised them to do.

"I already know where I will hide," a 19-year-old student, who gave his name only as Paul, said as he emerged in a hoodie, shorts and slippers to ask about breakfast in the canteen.

"I have enough food for at least a week and then will see what happens," he said.

Two protesters in full body armour, wielding metal rods, were going to get some sleep in the library after their night shift watching police movements outside.

"We need some energy to get ready for the big fight. Now that there's not many of us left they may want to come in," said a former student named Marc, 26.

"We know this place, it's our home and it is a maze. And we have weapons. We're not going to give up now, it's too late for that," he said.

Protesters still have stocks of petrol bombs, bows and arrows and other makeshift weapons after a weekend of fiery clashes.

One protester practised firing arrows at a campus tower shortly after dawn.

The university on the Kowloon peninsula is the last of five that protesters had occupied to use as bases from which to disrupt the city over the past 10 days, blocking the central Cross-Harbour Tunnel outside and other arteries.

"It's still incredible we defended it for such a long time," said a 21-year-old student named Ricky. "Since the police have taken control, many started to feel afraid and left and now many of us feel desperate and unhappy because we lost some support." (Reporting by Marius Zaharia and Jessie Pang; Writing by Greg Torode; Editing by Paul Tait)