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Student protesters hold out as Hong Kong leader urges peaceful resolution

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Hong Kong's embattled leader Carrie Lam said on Tuesday she hoped a standoff between police and a hold-out group of anti-government protesters at a university could be resolved and she had told police to handle it humanely.

[HONG KONG] Hong Kong's embattled leader

Carrie Lam said on Tuesday she hoped a standoff between police

and a hold-out group of anti-government protesters at a

university could be resolved and she had told police to handle

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it humanely.

About 100 defiant protesters remained in the 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.

Mrs Lam spoke shortly after the city's new police chief urged

the support of all citizens to end more than five months of

unrest that was triggered by fears that China's central

government is stifling the city's special autonomy and freedoms.

In what many will see as an illustration of Beijing's

tightening grip, China's legislature questioned the legality of

a Monday Hong Kong court ruling that a ban on face masks worn by

protesters was unlawful.

The National People's Congress (NPC) said Hong Kong courts

had no power to rule on the constitutionality of city

legislation, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

Mrs Lam said her government was very much on the "reactive side"

in dealing with the protests but she did not rule out more

violence even as she urged peace.

"If the protesters are coming out in a peaceful manner ...

then there is no situation when that sort of violence would

happen," she said.

However, police would have to take "necessary action" if the

situation changed, she said. Mrs Lam said she had been shocked that

campuses had been turned into "weapons factories".

On the sprawling Polytechnic campus in the Kowloon district,

a sense of despair prevailed amid the shriek of fire alarms on

Tuesday afternoon.

"I feel I'm in trouble, I feel a little bit terrible," said

a 22-year-old who gave his name as Marcus.

He and two friends sat in the campus canteen at a table

piled with dirty dishes and plastic cups, debating their

options.

"We keep trying to think how to escape, but every time we

pick a spot we see many police nearby," Marcus said.

"But if we give up, we're finished."

THWARTED SEWER ESCAPE

The university is the last of five that protesters occupied

to use as bases from which to disrupt the city, blocking the

central cross-harbour tunnel and main roads and forcing the

closure of businesses including shopping centres, in order, they

said, to put the government under economic pressure.

Mrs Lam said 600 protesters had left the Polytechnic campus,

including 200 below the age of 18.

Hundreds of them fled from the university or surrendered

overnight amid running battles on nearby streets as police fired

tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets and protesters lobbed

petrol bombs and bricks.

At one stage, dozens of protesters staged a dramatic escape

by shimmying down plastic hosing from a bridge and fleeing on

waiting motorbikes as police fired projectiles.

Later on Tuesday, about a dozen protesters tried to flee

through the university's sewerage system. A Reuters witness who

saw them lower themselves into a tunnel wearing gas masks and

plastic sheets to cover their bodies.

They were not able to escape and had to retreat back onto

the campus.

'COME HOME SAFELY'

Many protesters say they fear more bloodshed in a standoff

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.

One woman said her son was inside the campus with his

girlfriend and they would come out but for the fear of facing

charges of rioting, which can carry a 10-year sentence.

"I know the young people see there are many unrighteous

things in society, they want to do something to change it," said

the woman, who gave her name as Chan, 50.

"But as parents, we only have one wish. We only want all of

them to come home safely."

Protesters were initially angered by a now-withdrawn bill

that could have sent people to mainland China for trial but

their campaign has broadened into calls for full democracy and

an end to what many see as meddling by Beijing in China's freest

city.

China says it is committed to the "one country, two systems"

formula granting Hong Kong autonomy and has accused foreign

countries, including Britain and the United States, of inciting

trouble.

Dennis Kwok, a lawmaker with the pro-democracy Civic party,

denounced the NPC statement on the court ruling as "shocking".

"This is not the time to burn down your own house or to

destroy the rule of law in Hong Kong. Respect the courts in Hong

Kong, respect our system - this is the essence of 'one country

two systems'," he said.

Hundreds of people, many office workers wearing masks,

gathered in the business district on Tuesday afternoon.

Police hemmed them in and the protest was largely peaceful.

Such "flash mob" protests in the heart of the city have

happened on a daily basis over the past week, but the number of

people demonstrating has fallen.

However, the violence has worsened since last week, when

police shot a protester, a man was set on fire and the financial

district was filled with tear gas in the middle of the workday.

The city's Cross Harbour Tunnel linking Hong Kong island to

Kowloon remained shut on Tuesday due to extensive damage, while

some train services and many roads were closed.

All schools were shut again.

The unrest poses the gravest popular challenge to Chinese

President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.

 

REUTERS