HONG KONG (AP) – University students from mainland China are fleeing Hong Kong, and classes in primary and secondary schools have been suspended as clashes turn increasingly violent in the city’s 5-month-long anti-government unrest.
For the third day in a row, protesters caused major train service disruptions Wednesday, blocked streets and rallied in the central business district. They hunkered down for expected clashes with police at university campuses.
Authorities said marine police used a boat to help a group of mainland students leave the Chinese University of Hong Kong, which remained barricaded by demonstrators after violent clashes with police on Tuesday.
Mainland students have said in online posts that they are being targeted by protesters who have broken into their dormitories, spray-painted insults on walls and banged on their doors, the Beijing Evening News reported.
Many are taking advantage of a program that offers a week of free accommodation in one of a dozen hotels and hostels in the neighboring mainland city of Shenzhen, Chinese media reported.
The “Grads Home” service was established in 2013 to provide short-term accommodations to recent graduates looking for jobs in the tech hub.
Many subway and rail stations were closed for the morning commute as protesters blocked train doors from closing and vandalized train cars. Classes were also suspended at universities.
The Education Bureau initially said parents could decide whether to keep their children at home, but later suspended classes at primary and secondary schools for both Wednesday and Thursday.
Describing the situation as chilling, the bureau appealed for “school children to stay at home, not to hang around in the streets, to stay away from danger, and not to participate in illegal activities.”
Many of the masked people taking part in the protests are thought to be high school and university students.
Police subdued a few protesters as a crowd gathered for a third straight day in a central business and high-end retail district, public broadcaster RTHK reported. Protesters and police remained in the area, and office workers watched from the sidewalks.
At the Chinese University of Hong Kong, students and others hunkered down for another possible clash with police. Gasoline bombs and fires lit up parts of the campus the previous night, as police battled back with tear gas and rubber bullets.
Security Secretary John Lee said the use of force was needed to gain control of a bridge from which protesters were dropping objects onto a roadway below.
“The police have a duty to ensure public safety is maintained,” he told reporters. “That’s why we had to take charge of the bridge formerly controlled by the protesters.”
Before the Tuesday evening violence, Senior Police Superintendent Kong Wing-heun warned that protesters were carrying out “insane acts” and said “our society has been pushed to the brink of a total breakdown.”
Groups of riot police were deployed around central Hong Kong and its outlying territories to try to contain new violence. Many students at CUHK, in the outskirts of the sprawling metropolis, were armed with gasoline bombs while some carried bows and arrows.
“We are afraid the police will come to attack our home and our school, and we have to protect our home and our school,” said one student, who gave his name as X Chan.
The university’s student union president, Jacky So, appealed for an injunction from the High Court to ban police from entering the campus without a warrant or the school’s approval. Police had entered the campus and fired tear gas and used a water cannon late Tuesday.
The injunction would also block police from using crowd control weapons, such as tear gas and rubber bullets, at the university. A decision was expected late Wednesday.
The city’s religious leaders appealed Wednesday for an end to the violence and called on both police and protesters to show restraint.
“At this very critical point, the people of Hong Kong must unite and say no to violence,” the leaders of Hong Kong’s six major religious groups said in a statement.
The Chinese government’s liaison office in Hong Kong said the semi-autonomous territory is “slipping into the abyss of terrorism.” It called the setting of a man on fire an act of “flagrant terrorism.”
On Monday, a police officer drew his gun during a struggle with protesters, shooting one in the abdomen. In another neighborhood, a 57-year-old man who was defending China was set on fire after an apparent argument.
The man remained in critical condition Wednesday, and the protester was in serious condition, the Hospital Authority said.
Recent weeks have been marked by escalating vandalism of train stations and shops linked to mainland China, and assaults by both protesters and pro-Beijing supporters.
Police have arrested more than 3,500 people since the movement began in June over a now-withdrawn extradition bill.
Activists saw the bill as another sign of an erosion in Hong Kong’s autonomy and civic freedoms, which China promised would be maintained for 50 years under a “one nation, two systems” principle when the former British colony returned to Chinese control in 1997.
Associated Press writer Yanan Wang in Beijing contributed to this report.