Police safety teams Thursday began clearing a Hong Kong university that was a flashpoint for clashes with anti-government demonstrators, and an officer said any holdouts still hiding inside would not be immediately arrested.
The police move into the Polytechnic University came after its administration said they believed no one else remained inside after a two-day search ended Wednesday. Faculty teams found only a young woman in a weak condition and a stockpile of dangerous items including petrol bomb and corrosive liquid.
Hours before the police operation, a masked protester came out from his hiding and told reporters there are still less than 20 others holed up inside.
"The remaining protesters never trust the police. It explains why for the past few days when the university management search for us, we keep hiding," said the protester, who identified himself as Ah Bong.
He warned they'll "definitely protest" if police enter the campus.
The university has been ringed by police for 11 days as protesters retreated into the campus after blocking a major tunnel and set toll booths on fire during clashes with police. Some 1,100 protesters have left or have been arrested.
Senior police officer Chow Yat Ming said the focus of the operation is not to arrest any holdouts but on removing hazardous items that are a threat to public safety, and to gather evidence of "malicious" damage to campus facilities.
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If they find any protesters, he said police mediators and counselors will coax them to seek medical treatment. He said they won't be arrested but their details will be taken down for possible further action.
"Our major concern today is not about arrest, it's about their well-being," Chow said. He said it's unclear how long the operation will take.
Some 100 personnel, including hazmat teams and explosive disposal experts, fanned out across the vast campus. Television footage showed officers searching buildings and removing bottles and other items.
More than 5,000 people have been detained since the unrest started in June over a China extradition bill that was seen as an erosion of freedoms promised when the former British colony returned to Chinese control in 1997. The movement has since expanded into wider demands, including universal suffrage and an independent investigation of police conduct.
The protest movement was given another fillip after President Donald Trump signed two bills to support Hong Kong human rights and pro-democracy activists. China immediately warned it would take strong countermeasures.
"I signed these bills out of respect for President Xi, China, and the people of Hong Kong," Trump said in a statement. "They are being enacted in the hope that Leaders and Representatives of China and Hong Kong will be able to amicably settle their differences leading to long term peace and prosperity for all."
The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act mandates sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials who carry out human rights abuses and requires an annual review of the favorable trade status that Washington grants Hong Kong. Another bill prohibits export of certain nonlethal munitions to Hong Kong police.
Some analysts said it may encourage Britain and other Western nations to follow suit.
"It is a major turning point in the protest movement," said Willy Lam, a political expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
The U.S. support will pile more pressure on Hong Kong's embattled government and make Beijing "think twice" on using harsher tactics to quell the unrest, he said.
The U.S. legislation followed a stunning election victory by the pro-democracy camp in Sunday's local elections, in a rebuke of the government's handling of the crisis.
Many protesters however, feel it's premature to celebrate as the city's embattled leader Carrie Lam has not offered any concessions to their demands. Violence has abated since the polls but protesters plan to hold a victory rally Thursday night with more gatherings over the weekend.