Firefighters and police entered Polytechnic University on Thursday to remove hazardous items, marking the beginning of the end of a siege that began on campus 11 days ago.
About 100 crime officers, police negotiators, psychologists, paramedics and firefighters were among the team that entered Poly U at 8am.
However, no riot police officers would be involved, Assistant Commissioner of Police Chow Yat-ming said, shortly before the group entered the campus.
He said if police encountered any anti-government protesters remaining inside they would try to convince them to have medical attention and would not arrest them straight away.
“Our ultimate goal is to restore the safety of the school and open the campus as soon as possible,” Chow said.
“We have some officers from the police negotiation centre and the Social Welfare Department, and also clinical psychologists. We will try to convince them to get medical treatment.”
Apart from the work of officers and firefighters in removing explosive and other dangerous materials, other police officers would gather evidence after being told by the university that its various facilities had been damaged, he said.
It was hard to estimate the length of the operation, given the size of the campus, Chow said.
The violent clashes between protesters and police, which began two weeks ago, devastated the campus, with buildings damaged and vandalised, and petrol bombs, hazardous chemicals, rotting food and garbage littering the corridors, rooms and outside spaces. Campus officials have called it a hygiene and health risk.
More than 1,000 protesters and their supporters occupied the campus nearly two weeks ago, and engaged in fierce battles with the police on November 17. They blocked the roads leading to the city’s Cross-Harbour Tunnel, started fires on bridges nearby and set a police armoured vehicle ablaze.
Police responded with tear gas, sealed all campus exits and asked all those inside to leave.
About 1,100 people came out in the days that followed, although some escaped. Those aged 18 or above were arrested, while about 300 minors had their particulars recorded, although police reserved the right to pursue criminal cases against them later.
But an unknown number refused to leave the campus, with some saying in the days that followed that they were afraid of being arrested and mistreated by police, prompting a stalemate.
The university sent in two teams on Tuesday and Wednesday to locate those still in hiding and to convince them to leave, while a group assembled by police waited on standby.
Officers kept their distance, but, in an attempt to encourage people to leave, said those who needed medical treatment would not be arrested on the spot, even if they were over 18.
Their details would be recorded and police reserved the right to arrest them later.
Chow iterated on Thursday that their flexible and peaceful approach remained, and their priority was not to make arrests.
On Wednesday, the university conducted a second search of the campus, and said it could not find anyone left inside. A team sent the day before had located one woman, who refused to leave after talking to university counsellors.
That failure to find anyone prompted police to say they would enter on Thursday, which in turn brought an angry response from a lone protester who appeared on Wednesday night to accuse police of disrespecting the university’s request they lift their cordon around the campus.
“Police should respect the university’s request and retreat immediately and not challenging the holdouts’ and Hongkongers’ bottom line,” he said. “If police leave we could leave through the main entrance with our heads up.”
Over the past two days the university had repeatedly called for police to lift their cordon, but on Wednesday requested help from “relevant authorities” to help conduct the removal of dangerous substances.
Owan Li, the student representative on the university council, told an RTHK radio programme on Thursday morning it was difficult to assess how many students remained inside the campus.
He also claimed it was not dangerous inside the campus, and accused police of destroying the school’s autonomy.