HONG KONG - Anti-government protesters paralyzed parts of Hong Kong for a fourth day Thursday, forcing school closures and blocking highways and other transportation links to disrupt the financial hub amid a marked escalation of violence.
Protesters have torched vehicles and buildings, hurled petrol bombs at police stations and trains and vandalized prime shopping malls over the past week in some of the worst violence seen in more than five months of unrest.
Black-clad protesters and university students maintained their blockades of major roads, including the entrance to the Cross-Harbour Tunnel that links Hong Kong island to the Kowloon area, and a major highway artery between Kowloon and the rural New Territories.
Police fired tear gas near the tunnel early Thursday to try to clear the protesters.
Thousands of students barricaded themselves inside campuses with makeshift fortifications at several universities, blocking entrances and occupying nearby roads, preparing stockpiles of food, bricks, petrol bombs and other makeshift weapons as they hunkered down for possible clashes with police.
Commuters queued at metro stations across the city after some rail services were suspended and roads closed. Some citizens, dressed in office wear, shouted at riot police who were deployed on station platforms.
Demonstrators are angry about what they see as police brutality and meddling by Beijing in the freedoms guaranteed under the “one country, two systems” formula put in place when the territory returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
China denies interfering and has blamed Western countries, including Britain and the United States, for stirring up trouble.
Police said on Wednesday that violence in the Chinese territory had reached a “very dangerous and even deadly level.”
Authorities said Thursday 64 people were injured during Wednesday’s clashes, which left two men in critical condition. There were no further details about the injuries they sustained.
Police said in a statement a man had died after falling from an unspecified height Wednesday but gave no further details.
One woman, a 24-year-old worker caught in the traffic gridlock who gave her name as Kristy, said: “The government and the police have escalated the violence. If the government wants the violence to stop they need to listen to our demands,” she said.
Hong Kong’s embattled leader, Carrie Lam, met senior officials late Wednesday, media reported, amid speculation of fresh emergency measures to deal with the crisis.
The city’s Education Bureau announced that all schools would be closed Thursday because of safety concerns, a decision that typically only happens during severe typhoons or natural disasters. The bureau later announced all schools in Hong Kong would suspend classes from Friday to Sunday because of transportation disruptions.
Several universities also announced there would be no classes on campuses for the rest of the year from Thursday, meaning they would rely on online learning and other assessment methods for the remaining weeks of the term.
A number of major shopping malls also announced they would close Thursday over safety concerns as protesters planned further demonstrations throughout the day.
Lam said this week protesters paralyzing the city were “selfish” and were now the people’s enemy.