Hong Kong students' sewer escape thwarted as rows with UK, US grow

Hong Kong Polytechnic University Photograph:( Reuters )

Reuters Hong Kong, , Hong Kong Nov 20, 2019, 03.32 PM (IST)

Some anti-government protesters trapped inside a Hong Kong university on Wednesday tried to flee through the sewers, where one student said she saw snakes, but fireman prevented further escape bids by blocking a metal manhole into the system.

Reuters witnesses said fewer than 100 protesters remained inside the Polytechnic University, ring-fenced 24 hours a day by riot police and barricades after more than 1,000 were arrested from late on Monday.

Some surrendered while others were grabbed in escape attempts that included trying to clamber down ropes to waiting motorbikes.

Some protesters, wearing waterproof boots and carrying torches, resurfaced inside the campus after unsuccessfully probing the sewers - where fast-rising water levels are also a hazard - for a way out during the night.

It was unclear if any had managed to escape that way.

Firefighters, whom the students let on to the campus, were in place to stop any further such attempts to flee, blocking the only feasible entrance into the sewer system in an underground car park.

"The sewer was very smelly, with many cockroaches, many snakes. Every step was very, very painful," said Bowie, 21, a student at Hong Kong University who was forced to turn back.

"I’d never thought that one day I would need to hide in a sewer or escape through sewers to survive. The most unforgettable feeling is fear when I was inside."

She said she and friends were in the dirty water for about an hour, only to find they were no closer to escape.

"When we reached the end, we found we were still in the poly," she said.

Police searched for any escapees during the night with spotlights, without resorting to the tear gas and rubber bullets that marked clashes in recent days.

Police said nearly 800 people had left the campus peacefully by late on Tuesday and they would be investigated, including nearly 300 under the age of 18.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has called for a humane end to a siege that saw the most intense clashes since the protests escalated more than five months ago.

"We are hopeful that this incident will come to a peaceful end in the near future," university president Teng Jin-Guang told reporters.

"If any protesters are still worried about the process of coming out, I can assure you, because I have the assurance from the police force, if you come out, myself or one of my team members will meet you outside. We will accompany you to the police station to make sure that the whole case is going to be processed peacefully, fairly and humanely."

Police tightened security in the streets around the university, making them safe enough for a late Tuesday visit 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 Beijing is stifling the former British colony's freedoms and extensive autonomy guaranteed in its handover to Chinese rule in 1997.

Tang is under pressure to restore police morale as well as public confidence in a force that has come in for widespread criticism for increasingly violent tactics. Police deny accusations of using excessive force.

Police have made more than 5,000 arrests in connection with the protests since June.

The number of criminal damage cases reported between June and September was up 29.6 per cent on the same period last year, Commerce Secretary Edward Yau said in a written statement. Arson cases were up 57.4 per cent.

Chinese leaders say they are committed to the "one country, two systems" formula put in place in 1997 and have accused foreign countries, including Britain and the United States, of stirring up trouble.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab condemned China’s treatment of Simon Cheng, a former employee of Britain’s Hong Kong consulate, who said secret police beat him seeking information about the protest movement.

"We were shocked and appalled by the mistreatment he suffered while in Chinese detention, which amounts to torture," Raab said, according to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said Cheng had been detained for 15 days and had admitted fully to his offences. All of his legal rights were safeguarded, the spokesman said.

The US Senate unanimously passed the "Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act", which would require the secretary of state to certify at least once a year that Hong Kong retains enough autonomy to qualify for special US trading consideration and would impose sanctions against officials responsible for rights violations.

The bill must be reconciled with similar legislation approved by the House of Representatives. 

China summoned a representative of the US embassy in Beijing over the legislation and demanded that the United States stop meddling, the foreign ministry said.

The Hong Kong government expressed "deep regret" at the bill.

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

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

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.

Story highlights

Some surrendered while others were grabbed in escape attempts that included trying to clamber down ropes to waiting motorbikes