China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers in shorts and t-shirts made a surprising appearance in some Hong Kong streets on Saturday, briefly helping residents clean up debris and barricades after anti-government protests blocked roads.
The presence of PLA troops on the streets, even to help clean up roads near their base, could enrage protesters and stoke further controversy over the Chinese-ruled territory's autonomous status.
The former British colony has been rocked by more than five months of demonstrations, with pro-democracy protesters angry at perceived Communist Party meddling in a city guaranteed its freedoms when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Clashes between protesters and police have become increasingly violent, and China has warned that any attempt at independence for Hong Kong will be crushed, but the military have remained inside their base.
By late afternoon, the soldiers had left the streets outside Baptist University, which neighbours their barracks in the leafy district of Kowloon Tong.
Chinese troops have appeared on local streets only once since the 1997 handover, to help with cleanup operations after a typhoon in late 2018. It was not immediately clear how many were involved on Saturday.
Hundreds of residents moved in to help clear barricaded roads near several universities that were occupied and fortified by protesters this week
In some cases the two sides clashed, before the dwindling number of anti-government protesters at the campuses retreated.
Anti-China students and activists have barricaded at least five campuses in the last week, stockpiling petrol bombs, catapults, bows and arrows and other weapons.
In October, Chinese soldiers issued a warning to Hong Kong protesters who shone lasers at their barracks in the city, in the first direct interaction between mainland military forces and protesters.
In August, Beijing moved thousands of troops across the border into Hong Kong in an operation state news agency Xinhua described at the time as a routine “rotation”.
Up to 12,000 troops are now believed to be based across Hong Kong - more than double the usual number garrison number, foreign envoys and security analysts estimate.
China denies interfering in Hong Kong's affairs and has blamed Western countries for stirring up trouble. President Xi Jinping has repeatedly said he has confidence in the Hong Kong government restoring order.
Police say they are acting with restraint in the face of potentially deadly attacks.
Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule under a "one country, two systems" formula guaranteeing its colonial-era freedoms. Protesters' demands include full democracy and an independent investigation into perceived police brutality.