HONG KONG: Inside the increasingly empty and trashed campus of a Hong Kong university only a handful of activists held out on Thursday as they desperately searched for ways to escape or hide while squads of police encircled the grounds.
Much of Hong Kong`s Polytechnic University, which teemed with 33,000 students, faculty and staff in the most recent school year, has become a deserted wasteland.
Hundreds of anti-government protesters had fortified the campus and engaged in street battles with riot police earlier this week. But now the number of protesters has dwindled to fewer than 100, turning the grounds into an eerily empty compound scattered with debris and defaced with political slogans.
Trash and debris from homemade petrol bombs were strewn across the grounds. Many protesters have abandoned their equipment, including gas masks and umbrellas.
Much of the campus is damaged, with rooms vandalised and windows shattered. Electricity and water are still functioning. In a library, most books were untouched but makeshift petrol bombs were left on desks.
The protesters appeared to be outnumbered by media and people hoping to help, including some university staff, a group of Catholic clergy, and principals of secondary schools looking for any children still holding out.
A Catholic priest said his group had found the remaining protesters largely unwilling to engage. Some protesters told Reuters they were holding out not for a showdown with police, but because they were innocent and looking for an escape route.
"I won`t consider surrendering. Surrendering is for people who are guilty. None of us inside are guilty," Michelle, a 20-year-old student, said on the Polytechnic University`s Kowloon peninsula campus.
More than 1,000 protesters who tried to leave earlier this week were arrested, and most of those who remain say they hope to avoid being arrested for rioting or on other charges.
Hong Kong has had a brief respite from months of often violent demonstrations, with relative calm across the city for the past two days and nights ahead of District Council elections set for Sunday.
The government said late on Wednesday it was monitoring the situation to see whether the elections could be held safely. The university is the last campus still occupied by activists during a week that saw the most intense violence since the anti-government demonstrations escalated more than five months ago.
Demonstrators are angry at what they see as Chinese meddling in freedoms promised to Hong Kong when the British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Beijing has said it is committed to the "one country, two systems" formula granting Hong Kong autonomy. The unrest marks the most serious popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.
Some protesters have surrendered while others were held during escape attempts that included clambering down from a bridge to waiting motorbikes and fleeing through the sewers.
TRAIL OF DAMAGE
Graffiti sprayed on campus buildings read: "I have nothing to lose. I have no stake in society," summing up the mood of many protesters on Thursday morning.
Some looked for breakfast in a university canteen still stocked with food, including noodles and tomatoes. One protester, dressed in black with gloves, elbow and knee pads, had about a dozen colourful lighters strapped to his chest, apparently to light petrol bombs. He told Reuters the hold-outs were discussing what to do next.