HONG KONG — As Hong Kong police continued to lay siege to one of the city’s universities Tuesday, the former British colony’s embattled leader urged around 100 protesters holed up inside to leave the campus “as soon as possible.”
Some 600 protesters had left Hong Kong Polytechnic University “peacefully,” including about 200 who were younger than 18, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said in a news conference. Those under 18 would not be immediately arrested but could face charges later, she said, adding that the other 400 who have left had been arrested.
The city’s hospitals are dealing with nearly 200 injured who have been removed from the university campus and are urging people to stay away from emergency rooms unless absolutely necessary.
A small clutch of family members and friends of those inside have been gathering outside the campus in hopes of news.
Tiffany Chan, 24, who was at the police cordon outside the university said she was worried about her younger brother who is trapped inside.
Chan said the 18-year-old, who is not a student at the Polytechnic University, has been in contact with her, but refused to come out, saying that leaving the campus would be an act of surrender.
“I wouldn’t blame him for doing what he believes in,” she said, sobbing. “But sometimes, he has to care about his family’s feelings. I just want him to come back safely.”
Another man, who didn’t want to reveal his name, said his 16-year-old son has been trapped inside since Sunday. He also refuses to leave out of fear police will not keep their word not to arrest those under the age of 18.
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Asked if he is proud of his son, the man broke down in tears and said he respects his son’s decisions, as long as his actions are peaceful.
“As a middle-aged person, I don’t like to see violence, but I think the students have no choice. Before the violence happened, the protests were peaceful. But the government is not hearing them,” he said, his face covered with a mask.
Increasingly, family members and friends of protesters have been refusing to give their full names to the media, nervous about possible repercussions. Many obscure their faces as well.
University officials said Tuesday they continue to persuade those still inside the campus to leave.
But they have asked that the police don’t enter the campus for the time being, “to allow people on campus the chance to leave in a peaceful and orderly manner.”
Some protesters have been trying to escape. On Monday, NBC News saw about 20 people breaking free by running down an adjacent highway and railway tracks.
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Police said Tuesday some protesters also tried to escape by rappelling down a footbridge to getaway vehicles below. They said 37 people were intercepted, including the getaway drivers.
The university standoff is the most dramatic escalation of the Hong Kong protest movement since it began in June. Universities became the latest battleground last week, as protesters occupied several campuses, including the Polytechnic University.
Violence has spiraled over six months of protests, and so has the rhetoric.
China’s foreign ministry on Tuesday criticized “irresponsible remarks on Hong Kong affairs” coming out of the United States.
On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. was “gravely concerned” by the violence in Hong Kong, including the standoff at the Polytechnic University.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, tweeted his support for the protesters Saturday, calling the police response “shameful.” And Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., tweeted Sunday saying “Beijing is pushing Hong Kong into a state of siege.”
The university standoff continued as the Chinese government slapped down Hong Kong’s highest court, contending that it doesn’t have the authority to strike down a law banning protesters from wearing masks.
For more than five months, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, many of them wearing masks to shield their identities, have taken to the streets, initially to protest a proposed law that would have allowed Hong Kong to extradite criminal suspects to mainland China.
The measure was withdrawn in September, but the demonstrations have continued as a broader protest of China’s control over the island.
Jasmine Leung and Matt Bradley reported from Hong Kong. Yuliya Talmazan from London.