Iraqi cleric scolds security forces after protesters die in new tensions

By John Davison

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric on Friday berated security forces for failing to protect protesters killed in clashes with rival groups this week in the southern city of Najaf, and urged politicians to pick a government trusted by the people.

The violence in the holy city of Najaf, where Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is based, killed eight anti-government demonstrators after followers of populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr stormed their sit-in protest.

The incident laid bare new tensions on the street in Iraq, where nearly 500 people have been killed in months of unrest.

The most recent events have pitted young anti-government protesters against many of Sadr’s followers, known as blue hats for the caps they wear.

The blue hats turned on protesters in several incidents after Sadr entered a deal with Iran-backed political blocs last week to bring in new Prime Miniser-designate Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi – a move the protesters reject.

Sistani, in remarks delivered by his representative during his weekly Friday sermon in the holy city of Kerbala, condemned the violence in Najaf and blamed security forces for failing to stop it.

“It is the security forces that must take responsibility to keep the peace, protect the protest squares and peaceful demonstrators and identify attackers and rabble rousers,” the representative said.

“There is no excuse for shirking that duty.”

Sistani holds great influence over public opinion among Iraq’s Shi’ite majority. He avoids commenting on politics except during crises. His withdrawal of support for the government of Adel Abdul Mahdi in November sealed the outgoing premier’s fate.

Sistani urged that the new government which Allawi will form be representative of the Iraqi people and said it must have their full trust.

“It must be capable of calming the situation and take steps toward early elections free of the influence of money, weapons and foreign interference,” he said.

SADR’S ‘BETRAYAL’

Some protesters had hoped Sistani would reject Allawi who was named last week ending weeks of deadlock between political blocs.

“We hope Sistani will reject Allawi and the deal between the parties on Friday,” Mahdi Abdul Zahra, a protester in Baghdad, said.

The rival and two most powerful parliamentary blocs of Sadr and a grouping of Iran-backed parties put their differences aside to approve Allawi’s nomination.

Sadr has regularly threatened to call all his followers out to protest alongside the anti-government movement. The followers including the blue hats had been unofficially involved in the demonstrations and at times protected protesters from assaults by security forces and Iran-aligned militiamen.

His move to support Allawi, and subsequent calls for the blue hats to remove protest camps deemed to be preventing schools or businesses from functioning, is seen as betrayal by many.

“I used to support the Sadrist movement. But the minute he did this, I stopped. I’ve erased all by Facebook posts that supported him,” Abdul Zahra said from a main square where protesters skirmished with police.

The protests began in October and swelled in cities throughout the Shi’ite south, pitting impoverished and jobless masses against the Shi’ite-dominated and Iran-aligned government.

Security forces and unidentified gunmen have shot dead nearly 500 people since then.

(Reporting by John Davison; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Breaking precedent, Trump to attend Washington anti-abortion march

(Reuters) – Donald Trump will become the first U.S. president to attend the annual “March for Life” to be held in Washington on Friday, organizers said, underscoring his outspoken support for the anti-abortion movement as it celebrates key legislative gains.

Thousands of protesters from around the country were expected to converge in the nation’s capital for the event, which began in 1973 after the U.S. Supreme Court, in its Roe v. Wade decision, established a woman’s constitutional right to get an abortion.

“See you on Friday … Big Crowd!” Trump posted on Twitter on Tuesday in response to a tweet from March for Life promoting the event.

With the 2020 presidential campaign season heating up, abortion remains one of the most divisive issues in the United States. Opponents cite religious beliefs to declare it immoral, while abortion-rights activists say the procedure is protected by a constitutional guarantee that gives women control over their bodies and futures.

About 58% of American adults say abortion should be legal in most or all cases, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll last year.

Even so, anti-abortion advocates made significant legislative strides in 2019. Twenty-five bans on various types of abortions were signed into law, according to the Guttmacher Institute, although many have not taken effect because of pending legal challenges.

Conservative lawmakers have said some of the bans were passed with the knowledge that they likely would be struck down in court but with the hope that those rulings might prompt the Supreme Court to review its Roe v. Wade decision.

In Roe v. Wade, the court found that certain state laws outlawing abortion were an unconstitutional violation of a woman’s right to privacy, effectively legalizing abortion nationwide.

Even though he had declared support for abortion rights years earlier, Trump vowed during his 2016 campaign to appoint Supreme Court justices he believed would overturn Roe. Since his election, he has appointed two justices to the court, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, cementing the court’s 5-4 conservative majority.

“You’ve heard a lot of religious leaders and a lot of Republicans say that this president is the biggest champion for life … the biggest advocate for the pro-life movement in history,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley told reporters on Thursday.

March For Life President Jeanne Mancini said the organization “was deeply honored” to welcome Trump in person, after he delivered televised remarks in support of the anti-abortion movement at the 2019 march. Vice President Mike Pence attended the event in person last year.

Past U.S. presidents have opted to stay from the march. Republicans Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush both delivered remarks remotely.

In June, the Supreme Court is expected to rule on a case that could drastically limit doctors’ ability to provide abortions in Louisiana, a Republican stronghold state. The case will test the willingness of the court to uphold Republican-backed abortion restrictions being pursued in numerous conservative states.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Frank McGurty and Leslie Adler)

Hong Kong mall protests flare with leader Lam in Beijing

Hong Kong mall protests flare with leader Lam in Beijing
By Kate O’Donnell-Lamb and Sarah Wu

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Small groups of protesters gathered in shopping malls across Hong Kong on Sunday amid brief scuffles with riot police as attention turned to an upcoming meeting between Hong Kong’s leader and China’s president.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam is scheduled to meet Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing on Monday and some observers say the visit could yield fresh directives including a possible cabinet reshuffle.

Lam, however, appeared to play that down before she left, saying the first task was to curb violence and restore order.

On Sunday in the peak shopping season ahead of Christmas, groups of masked protesters, clad in black, marched through several malls chanting slogans including “Fight for freedom” and “Return justice to us”.

Riot police used pepper spray on crowds in one Kowloon mall, local media reported.

In Shatin, Reuters witnessed police firing a tear gas canister outside the New Town Plaza mall, and several people were taken away after entrances and walkways were blocked, glass panels smashed, and graffiti sprayed.

Police said in a statement that some shops had been damaged and that a smoke bomb had been set off. Many shops closed early.

In the evening, several hundred protesters held a vigil for a protester who fell to his death outside a luxury mall exactly six months ago after holding up a banner. Some laid white flowers, as others softly hummed ‘Sing Hallelujah’ to commemorate Leung Ling-kit, known as “raincoat man” for what he wore at the time.

“He is the first person to die because of this revolution,” said Tina, 18. “I came tonight because I want to always remember that we can’t give up and we have to keep fighting for freedom.”

Several hundred people, many social workers, gathered earlier to reiterate demands that include full democracy and an independent inquiry into allegations of police brutality. Some called for more mass strikes, while others sat at tables to write Christmas cards to those who have been jailed.

Separately, a pro-government rally drew over a thousand people, with participants denouncing the use of violence during protests.

Hong Kong has been embroiled in its worst political crisis in decades since June with anti-government protests posing a populist challenge to China’s Xi and complicating ties between China and the United States at a time of heightened tensions including over trade.

Demonstrators have railed against what they see as Chinese meddling in freedoms promised to Hong Kong when the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997, gradually ramping up the use of violence over many months of unrest.

They also say they are responding to excessive use of force by police. Last Sunday, a protest march drew around 800,000 people, according to organizers, suggesting the movement still has significant public support.

The government is planning more public dialogue through social media channels, as well as a second town hall session with top officials to try to bridge differences.

Despite the febrile public mood, China maintains it is committed to the “one country, two systems” formula granting Hong Kong autonomy and says it fully supports Lam.

(Additional reporting by Twinnie Siu and Noah Sin; writing by James Pomfret; editing by Jason Neely)

Lawyers ransack Pakistani hospital in row with doctors, patient dies

By Mubasher Bukhari

LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) – More than 100 lawyers stormed and ransacked a hospital in Pakistan on Wednesday to avenge what they said was an assault by doctors there on a fellow advocate, and an elderly patient died during the disturbance, authorities said.

Zulfikar Hameed, the Lahore city police chief, said the mob smashed windowpanes, doors and equipment at the cardiology hospital and also set several vehicles on fire.

Some of the protesters fired gunshots and pelted arriving police with stones and bricks, according to a hospital doctor, Ashraf Nizami. Several lawyers were arrested, police said.

“It was catastrophic for hours,” Nizami said, adding that a 70-year-old female patient had died, and several patients were left unattended for hours, during the violence.

Nizami said the attackers forced doctors and nurses to flee, leaving patients in emergency and intensive care unattended.

Police fired tear gas to quell the mob while terrified patients and hospital staff fled to safety, officials said.

Lahore government official Kamran Ali said the lawyers were enraged over what they said was the beating by doctors of a lawyer at the hospital over his refusal to get in a queue of patients.

He said the lawyers were particularly angry about the doctors disseminating a mobile phone video on social media showing the beating.

The mob also roughed up provincial information minister Fayaz-ul-Hasan Chauhan when he got to the scene and tried to negotiate with the lawyers.

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s office launched an investigation into the incident. “It is a shame that some people would go and attack a hospital,” his spokesman Nadeem Afzal Chan said.

(Writing by Asif Shahzad; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

U.N. human rights chief denounces Iran security forces for using ‘severe violence’ against protesters

GENEVA (Reuters) – Iranian security forces have shot at protesters from helicopters and a rooftop and have aimed at peoples’ heads in using “severe violence” to quell anti-government unrest last month, U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said on Friday.

They have also fired at protesters as they were running away, Bachelet said in a statement, citing verified video footage.

The U.N. Human Rights Office has received information indicating that at least 208 people have been killed, including 13 women and 12 children, during the demonstrations and at least 7,000 people arrested, the statement said.

More than twice that number may have been killed, according to unconfirmed reports, according to the statement.

Iranian authorities confirmed for the first time this week that security forces killed demonstrators during what rights groups have said was the deadliest anti-government unrest since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

“All in all, the picture now emerging from Iran is extremely disturbing,” Bachelet said.

One of the worst incidents took place in the city of Mahshahr in southwest Iran on Nov. 18 when security forces fired at protesters with machineguns, killing at least 23 and possibly many more, the United Nations statement said.

Security forces have used water cannon, tear gas, batons, and live fire against unarmed demonstrators who posed no imminent threat of death or serious injury, it said.

“Verified video footage indicates severe violence was used against protesters, including armed members of security forces shooting from the roof of a justice department building in one city, and from helicopters in another,” Bachelet said.

“We have also received footage which appears to show security forces shooting unarmed demonstrators from behind while they were running away, and shooting others directly in the face and vital organs – in other words shooting to kill.”

These were serious violations of human rights, Bachelet said. Iranian authorities must act with greater transparency and carry out independent investigations, including into the killing of protesters and deaths and ill-treatment in custody, she said.

“And those responsible must be held accountable,” she said.

The senior U.S. diplomat for Iran said on Thursday that Iranian security forces may have killed more than 1,000 people,

The unrest began on Nov. 15 after the government abruptly raised fuel prices and rapidly spread to over 100 cities and towns and turned political with young and working-class protesters demanding clerical leaders step down.

(Reporting By Babak Dehghanpisheh; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

China suspends U.S. military visits to Hong Kong, sanctions U.S.-based NGOs

BEIJING (Reuters) – China said on Monday U.S. military ships and aircraft won’t be allowed to visit Hong Kong, and also announced sanctions against several U.S. non-government organizations for encouraging protesters to “engage in extremist, violent and criminal acts.”

The measures were announced by China’s Foreign Ministry in response to U.S. legislation passed last week supporting anti-government protesters. It said it had suspended taking requests for U.S. military visits indefinitely, and warned of further action to come.

“We urge the U.S. to correct the mistakes and stop interfering in our internal affairs. China will take further steps if necessary to uphold Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity and China’s sovereignty,” said ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a daily news briefing in Beijing.

China last week promised it would issue “firm counter measures” after U.S. President Donald Trump signed into law the “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act,” which supports anti-government protesters in Hong Kong and threatens China with potential sanctions.

There are fears that the row over Hong Kong could impact efforts by Beijing and Washington to reach preliminary deal that could de-escalate a prolonged trade war between the two countries.

The U.S.-headquartered NGOs targeted by Beijing include the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, the International Republican Institute, Human Rights Watch, and Freedom House.

“They shoulder some responsibility for the chaos in Hong Kong and they should be sanctioned and pay the price,” said Hua.

In more normal times, several U.S. naval ships visit Hong Kong annually, a rest-and-recreation tradition that dates back to the pre-1997 colonial era which Beijing allowed to continue after the handover from British to Chinese rule.

Visits have at times been refused amid broader tensions and two U.S. ships were denied access in August.

The USS Blue Ridge, the command ship of the Japanese-based Seventh Fleet, stopped in Hong Kong in April – the last ship to visit before mass protests broke out in June.

Foreign NGOs are already heavily restricted in China, and have previously received sharp rebukes for reporting on rights issues in the country including the mass detention of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.

(Reporting by Cate Cadell and Beijing Monitoring Desk; Editing by Tom Hogue & Simon Cameron-Moore)

China envoy warns of ‘very bad damage’ if Canada follows U.S. lead on Hong Kong

OTTAWA (Reuters) – China’s new ambassador to Canada on Friday warned Ottawa not to follow the U.S. lead and formally back protesters in Hong Kong, saying such a move would cause “very bad damage” to already poor ties with Beijing.

Canada, which has been locked in a trade and diplomatic dispute with China, has repeatedly expressed concern about the safety of its 300,000 citizens in Hong Kong, hit by five months of mass demonstrations for more democracy and autonomy.

The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday passed two bills to back the protesters and send a warning to China about human rights.

“If somebody here really tries to … have this kind of law like that in the United States, it’s very dangerous,” said Chinese envoy Cong Peiwu, speaking in English.

“If anything happens like this it will certainly have a very bad damage on our bilateral relationship and that is not in the interests of Canada,” he told a news conference in the embassy. He formally presented his credentials on Nov 1.

The uncompromising tone of his message indicated that while the ambassador may have changed, China’s approach has not.

Cong repeated Beijing’s demand that Canada immediately release Huawei Technologies Co Ltd Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou, who is out on bail after Canadian police detained her on a U.S. arrest warrant last December.

“This incident has led to the severe difficulties the two countries are facing nowadays,” said Cong.

Shortly after Meng’s arrest, China picked up two Canadian citizens on state secret charges, and has since blocked imports of canola seed from Canada.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, asked on Wednesday what additional measures Canada would take to protect its citizens in Hong Kong, said “we will continue to call for de-escalation and an end to violence” while urging dialogue.

If Canada wanted to protect its citizens, it should ask “those rioters to stop the violence, otherwise those Canadians living in Hong Kong, how can they be safe?” Cong said.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Protesters left on besieged HK campus weigh their options

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 riot police who surrounded the campus but said there was no deadline for ending the standoff.

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.

Another man sitting nearby agreed, saying it was just as well he was divorced because a “man with family cannot make it to here.”

The 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 rebel 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 towards 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 fire 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, including Britain and the United States, of stirring up trouble.

One older protester, who estimated only about 30 demonstrators remained, said some had given up looking for escape routes and were now 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 Paul Tait, Robert Birsel and Philippa Fletcher)

Hong Kong students’ sewer escape thwarted

By Donny Kwok and Clare Baldwin

HONG KONG (Reuters) – 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 firemen prevented further escape bids by blocking a 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, after more than 1,000 were arrested from late on Monday.

Some surrendered while others were held during escape attempts that included trying to clamber down ropes to waiting motorbikes on Monday night, with protesters throwing petrol bombs and police responding with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon.

The streets were quiet on Tuesday and Wednesday.

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.

Police said six people were arrested on Wednesday – four while removing a manhole cover outside the campus and two climbing out.

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

“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 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 and other arteries.

“This mission is a loss,” said Brutus, 21, who became a protest frontliner in August. He and his girlfriend were taking a break to eat an orange, a Snickers bar and hard boiled eggs in one of the classrooms.

“After all of the things that happened, I don’t think protesters taking control of the universities was a good option. We don’t have gear like the police. We are not well-organized like the police.”

Brutus said he also felt bad about damage to the university. Breaking the CCTV cameras was fine, he said, because that was about protecting people. But other damage was wrong – especially to the library.

“We are here to learn. Now we can’t pass those books to the students coming in next year. That is a great loss.”

He and his girlfriend left to look for a way to escape.

ROTTEN FOOD

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. At least 24 were seen walking out on Wednesday.

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.

Police said they had no plans to storm the campus, now wrecked and daubed with graffiti, parts of it stinking of petrol used to make Molotov cocktails and rotten food, with broken glass everywhere. “Ideas are bulletproof,” was spray-painted in a few places.

Demonstrators are angry at what they see as Chinese meddling in freedoms promised to Hong Kong when the then British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997. They say they are responding to excessive use of force by police.

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

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

Police tightened security around the university, making the streets safe enough for a late Tuesday visit by the force’s new commissioner, Chris Tang, on his first day on the job.

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 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% on the same period last year, Commerce Secretary Edward Yau said in a written statement. Arson cases were up 57.4%.

Chinese leaders say they are committed to Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” formula for autonomy and have accused foreign countries, including Britain and the United States, of stirring up trouble.

Ties between China and those two countries came under strain over Hong Kong on Wednesday.

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.

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

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.

China summoned a representative of the U.S. 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” over the bill.

(Reporting by Marius Zaharia, Jessie Pang, Aleks Solum, Joseph Campbell, T^om Peter, Twinnie Siu, Clare Jim, Donny Kwok, Clare Baldwin and Julie Zhu; Writing by Tony Munroe and Nick Macfie; Editing by Giles Elgood)

At embattled Hong Kong university, a dramatic escape

At embattled Hong Kong university, a dramatic escape
By James Pomfret and Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Dozens of Hong Kong protesters staged a dramatic escape from a university campus sealed off by police on Monday by shimmying down plastic hosing from a bridge and fleeing on waiting motorbikes as the police fired projectiles.

Many more anti-government protesters remained trapped inside the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and two prominent figures were allowed by police onto the campus late on Monday to mediate, a sign that there is a growing risk of bloodshed.

“The situation is getting more and more dangerous,” Jasper Tsang, a pro-Beijing politician who is the former head of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, told Reuters soon after he arrived at the campus.

As he spoke, big explosions were heard and flames flared up at a distant part of the campus. In streets nearby, protesters rained down petrol bombs, burning parked cars and the front of a Standard Chartered Bank branch.

Polytechnic University in the Kowloon district of Hong Kong is at the center of a standoff in the past week that has seen the most intense violence in five months of anti-government demonstrations.

Some of the protesters who escaped on Monday lowered themselves about 10 meters from a bridge they had occupied on the campus to a flyover below. They then sped off on the back of motorcycles which were already waiting or quickly arrived.

A number of them appeared subsequently to have been arrested, a Reuters witness said.

Other protesters, hurling petrol bombs, tried repeatedly to break into the campus but police fired tear gas and water cannon to push them back.

The size of demonstrations has dwindled in recent weeks, but clashes have worsened since early last week, when police shot a protester, a man was set on fire and the city’s financial district was filled with tear gas in the middle of the workday.

The city’s hospital authority reported 116 injuries on Monday, including one female in serious condition.

TIGHTENED CORDON

Earlier on Monday, police tightened their cordon around the Polytechnic University and prevented dozens of people breaking through police lines.

“If the police decide to come in by force, to make their arrests then there will be very strong resistance from the protesters, and we’re afraid we may see bloodshed. This is something that we want to avoid,” Tsang said.

Tsang, who with legal scholar Eric Cheung was the first prominent mediator let onto the campus by police, said there were young children and elderly people trapped inside and that it was a priority to get the children out first.

Early on Tuesday, about 20 students accompanied by Tsang left the campus voluntarily, broadcaster RTHK reported on its livestream.

Police said officers had been deployed “on the periphery” of the campus for a week, appealing to “rioters” to leave.

Witnesses estimated there were more than 300 people still on the campus as of late Monday.

ARRESTS MOUNT

Police say 4,491 people, aged from 11 to 83, have been arrested since protests began in June.

Demonstrators are angry at what they see as Chinese meddling in Hong Kong’s promised freedoms when the then British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997. They say they are responding to excessive use of force by police.

China says it is committed to the “one country, two systems” formula granting Hong Kong autonomy. The city’s police deny accusations of brutality and say they show restraint.

China’s ambassador to London on Monday accused foreign countries including the United States and Britain of interfering in Chinese internal affairs through their reactions to the violent clashes taking place in Hong Kong.

“Some Western countries have publicly supported extreme violent offenders,” Ambassador Liu Xiaoming told a London news conference. He also said Western reporting on Hong Kong was misleading and did not give enough prominence to violence perpetrated by the protesters.

The unrest poses the gravest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012. Beijing denies interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs and has blamed Western countries for stirring up unrest.

The Hong Kong government invoked a colonial-era emergency law in October banning faced masks commonly used by protesters. The High Court ruled on Monday the ban was unconstitutional and police said they would suspend all such prosecutions.

(Reporting by Marius Zaharia, James Pomfret, Josh Smith, Jessie Pang, Joyce Zhou, Donny Kwok, Anne Marie Roantree, Twinnie Siu, Greg Torode, Kate Lamb, Farah Master, David Lague, Jennifer Hughes and Tom Lasseter in Hong Kong and Phil Stewart in Bangkok; Writing by Greg Torode and Tony Munroe; Editing by Stephen Coates, Robert Birsel and Timothy Heritage)