Hong Kong students’ sewer escape thwarted; row with Britain grows
HONG KONG- 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 the escape by blocking a trapdoor 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 since 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 on Wednesday 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, who the students let onto 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, 23, a student at Hong Kong University who was forced to turn back.
“And the flow of water was strong. Hong Kong is a very developed city. 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 the fear when I was inside.”
She said she and friend 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.
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.
They also 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 to suppress the protests. Police deny accusations of using excessive force.
The police quietly rolled out a new, harder-edged motto on Tang’s first day, replacing “We Serve with Pride and Care” with “Serving Hong Kong with Honour, Duty and Loyalty”.
Police have made more than 5,000 arrests in connection with the protests since June.
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 a former employee of Britain’s Hong Kong consulate who told a newspaper Chinese secret police beat him seeking information about the protest movement.
Simon Cheng, a Hong Kong citizen who worked for the British mission’s business-development team when he was detained, told the Wall Street Journal that he was questioned repeatedly about the role his interrogators presumed Britain was playing in fomenting the unrest.
“Simon Cheng was a valued member of our team. 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.
In Washington, the U.S. 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 U.S. 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. Senate aides said they expected it to move forward eventually as an amendment to a defence bill expected to pass Congress this year.
China’s foreign ministry condemned the legislation, saying the United States should stop interfering in Hong Kong and Chinese affairs. The Hong Kong government expressed “deep regret” over it.
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 to express a range of feelings, from defiance to uncertainty.
They 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 while others considered hiding in the maze of campus buildings, as they said a teacher had advised them to do.
Two protesters in body armour, wielding metal rods, were going to get some sleep after a night on guard, 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’s a maze, and we have weapons. We’re not going to give up now, it’s too late for that.”
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.
(Content and photos syndicated via Reuters)