By Kate Lamb and Jessie Pang
HONG KONG (Reuters) – At least eight protesters who had been holding out at a trashed Hong Kong university surrendered on Friday, while others searched for escape routes past the riot police surrounding the campus.
The siege at the Polytechnic University on the Kowloon peninsula appeared to be nearing an end with the number of protesters dwindling to a handful, days after some of the worst violence since anti-government demonstrations escalated in June.
Police chief Chris Tang, who took up the post this week, urged those remaining inside to come out.
“I believe people inside the campus do not want their parents, friends … to worry about them,” Tang told reporters.
Those who remain say they want to avoid being arrested for rioting or on other charges, so hope to find some way to slip past the police or hide.
Sitting in the largely deserted campus, one holdout described how his girlfriend had pleaded with him to surrender to the police.
He had refused, he said, telling her she might as well find another partner because he would likely go to jail.
“A man has to abandon everything otherwise it’s impossible to take part in a revolution,” the protester told Reuters.
The U.S. Congress has passed legislation to back the Hong Kong protesters and threaten China with possible sanctions for human rights violations, angering Beijing. President Donald Trump, who is seeking a resolution to a tit-for-tat tariff trade war with Beijing, was vague on Friday when asked whether he would sign the bills.
Trump said in an interview with Fox News Channel that he told Chinese President Xi Jinping that crushing the protesters would have “a tremendous negative impact” on efforts to end the 16-month trade war.
“If it weren’t for me Hong Kong would have been obliterated in 14 minutes,” he said, without offering any evidence.
“He’s got a million soldiers standing outside of Hong Kong that aren’t going in only because I ask him please don’t do it, you’ll be making a big mistake, it’s going to have a tremendous negative impact on the trade deal and he wants to make a trade deal.”
The Polytechnic campus was so quiet on Friday you could hear the chants of Chinese People’s Liberation Army soldiers exercising on their nearby base.
Many levels of the buildings look like abandoned hideouts strewn with remains — rucksacks, masks, water bottles, cigarette butts, with security cameras smashed throughout. Lockers were stuffed with gas masks and black clothes, and a samurai sword lay on the ground where it was abandoned.
“We are feeling a little tired. All of us feel tired but we will not give up trying to get out,” said a 23-year-old demonstrator who gave his name as Shiba as he ate noodles in the protesters’ canteen.
A Reuters reporter saw six black-clad protesters holding hands walk toward police lines, while a first aid worker said two more surrendered later.
The protests snowballed from June after years of resentment over what many residents see as Chinese meddling in freedoms promised to Hong Kong when the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Protesters, who have thrown petrol bombs and rocks and fired bows and arrows at police, are calling for full democracy and an independent inquiry into perceived police brutality, among other demands.
Police have responded to the attacks with rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannon and occasional live rounds but say they have acted with restraint in life-threatening situations.
On Friday Hong Kong’s High Court said it would temporarily suspend its ruling that found a controversial law banning protesters from wearing face masks is unconstitutional.
The court said it would suspend its ruling for seven days while appeals processes proceeded.
Beijing has said it is committed to the “one country, two systems” formula under which Hong Kong is governed. It denies meddling in its affairs and accuses foreign governments of stirring up trouble.
One older protester, who estimated only about 30 demonstrators remained at the university, said some had given up looking for escape routes and were making new weapons to protect themselves in case police stormed the campus.
There have been two days and nights of relative calm in the city ahead of district council elections that are due to take place on Sunday.
Tang said police would adopt a “high-profile” presence on Sunday and he appealed to protesters to refrain from violence so people feel safe to vote.
(Reporting by Clare Jim, Alun John, Kate Lamb, Jessie Pang and Felix Tam; Writing by By Anne Marie Roantree, Marius Zaharia, Nick Macfie and Josh Smith; Editing by Robert Birsel, Philippa Fletcher and Sonya Hepinstall)