Hong Kong Polytechnic University standoff appears over as search yields only one protester

The tense standoff between police and protesters at Hong Kong Polytechnic University appeared to be coming to an end early Wednesday, as only one demonstrator was reported to be found during an official search of the campus.

University vice president Alexander Wai, who led seven search teams through the school’s grounds, said he couldn’t rule out that some people remained, but “the possibility is not very high.” He noted that just one woman – who is over 18 and not a student of the university – was discovered Wednesday during the searches. She received medical treatment and counselors were trying to convince her to surrender.

The effort apparently didn’t find a man who told reporters before dawn that he is happy living at the university and “everyone can stop worrying about us,” according to the Associated Press. But police have cordoned off the area to try to prevent anyone from escaping.

Professor Alex Wai, Vice President of Hong Kong Polytechnic University, takes in the vandalized campus as he leads a team of school officials and first aid providers to look for holed up protesters on a rooftop.

Professor Alex Wai, Vice President of Hong Kong Polytechnic University, takes in the vandalized campus as he leads a team of school officials and first aid providers to look for holed up protesters on a rooftop. (AP)

The streets around Polytechnic were the scenes of fierce clashes with police 10 days ago. Anti-government protesters used the campus as a base and shut down access to a major roadway under Hong Kong’s harbor, setting the toll booths on fire.

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The search teams Wednesday found gasoline bombs and other dangerous items, a statement from Polytechnic said. The library was flooded, and the fuel tanks of cars had been forced open.

The university plans to resume the search Thursday morning, possibly with more people. Hong Kong is 13 hours ahead of New York.

Attention in Hong Kong has shifted to city leader Carrie Lam’s response to a major loss in local elections Sunday. The pro-democracy bloc won control of 17 out of 18 district councils, which were seen as a barometer of public support for more than five months of pro-democracy protests.

Police in riot gear move through a cloud of smoke as they detain a protester at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University on Nov. 18.

Police in riot gear move through a cloud of smoke as they detain a protester at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University on Nov. 18. (AP)

After issuing only a written statement Monday, Lam offered no concessions to the protesters, saying only that she would accelerate dialogue and identify ways to address societal grievances.

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She said the central government in Beijing did not blame her for the election setback, and that while it may have reflected unhappiness with the government’s handling of the unrest, it also showed that many people want an end to the violence.

“Let me just stress that after these five-six months, Hong Kong people have realized very clearly that Hong Kong could no longer tolerate this chaotic situation,” Lam told reporters after a weekly meeting with advisers on Tuesday. “Please help us to maintain the relative calm and peace that we have seen in the last week or so and provide a good basis for Hong Kong to move forward.”

A police officer prepares to fire tear gas canisters during a clash with protesters near Hong Kong Polytechnic University on Nov. 18.

A police officer prepares to fire tear gas canisters during a clash with protesters near Hong Kong Polytechnic University on Nov. 18. (AP)

Her refusal to compromise could spark more unrest at a time when the semi-autonomous Chinese territory has plunged into its first recession in a decade.

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The government hopes to take advantage of the current lull in violence to accelerate public dialogue and set up an independent review committee to find solutions to deep-seated societal issues, Lam said.

“The next step to go forward is really, as you have put it, to engage the people. And we have started public dialogue with the community,” she added. “But unfortunately, with the unstable environment and a chaotic situation, I could not do more on that sort of engagement. I hope that the environment will allow me to do it now."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.