HONG KONG (REUTERS) - A Hong Kong university campus under siege for more than a week was a deserted wasteland on Saturday (Nov 23), with a handful of protesters holed up in hidden refuges across the trashed grounds, as the city's focus turned to local elections.
The end of the siege at Polytechnic University on the Kowloon peninsula was approaching as some protesters desperately sought a way out and others vowed not to surrender, days after some of the worst violence since anti-government demonstrations escalated in June.
"If they storm in, there are a lot of places for us to hide," said Sam, a 21-year-old student, who was eating two-minute noodles in the cafeteria, while plotting his escape.
Another protester, Ron, vowed to remain until the end with other holdouts, adding, "The message will be clear that we will never surrender."
About 1,000 people have been arrested in the siege in the Chinese-ruled city, about 300 of them younger than 18.
Police have set up high plastic barricades and a fence on the perimeter of the campus, which they have surrounded for more than a week. Early on Saturday, a Reuters witness saw three police vans drive in as about a dozen officers stood guard.
A single armed Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldier stood guard inside the Gun Club Hill Barracks next to the police fence on the edges of the university.
In the early hours of Saturday, fire department officers inspected part of a sewer system through which some students had tried to flee earlier in the week, leaving backpacks, masks and other belongings scattered nearby.
Rotting rubbish and boxes of unused petrol bombs littered the campus. On the edge of a dry fountain at its entrance lay a Pepe the frog stuffed toy, a mascot protesters have embraced as a symbol of their movement.
Scores of construction workers worked at the mouth of the Cross-Harbour Tunnel, closed for more than a week after it was first blockaded, to repair toll booths smashed by protesters and clear debris from approach roads.
The road tunnel links Hong Kong island to the Kowloon area. The repairs got underway as a record 1,104 people gear up to run for 452 district council seats in elections on Sunday.
A record 4.1 million Hong Kong people, from a population of 7.4 million, have enrolled to vote, spurred in part by registration campaigns during months of protests.
Young pro-democracy activists are now running in some of the seats that were once uncontested, and dominated by pro-Beijing candidates.
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.
Beijing has said it is committed to the "one country, two systems" formula by which Hong Kong is governed. It denies meddling in the affairs of the Asian financial hub and accuses foreign governments of stirring up trouble.
In an interview with Fox News Channel on Friday, US President Donald Trump said he had told Chinese President Xi Jinping that crushing the protests would have "a tremendous negative impact" on efforts to end the two countries' 16-month-long trade war.
"If it weren't for me Hong Kong would have been obliterated in 14 minutes," Trump said, without offering any evidence.
"He's got a million soldiers standing outside of Hong Kong that aren't going in only because I ask him, 'Please don't do it, you'll be making a big mistake, it's going to have a tremendous negative impact on the trade deal,' and he wants to make a trade deal."