Nov. 16 (UPI) -- Mainland Chinese soldiers were deployed for the first time Saturday to clear the streets amid protests in Hong Kong.
Dozens of soldiers jogged out of their Kowloon garrison barracks in black shorts and green T-shirts and carrying red buckets to load bricks protesters left as roadblocks on Renfrow Road, near Baptist University. In addition to the soldiers, local residents helped with the cleanup, students said.
The deployment comes after five months of protests over a now-suspended extradition bill, which sparked speculation about the future of the Chinese army's role in the semi-autonomous coastal city.
The troops have been garrisoned in Hong Kong since the former British colony returned to Chinese control in 1997, but have mostly kept to their barracks. Under the city's Garrison Law, the army is not to interfere in local affairs, but can can be called out if the local government requests help with disaster relief or maintaining public order.
The move comes after a violent work week.
A 70-year-old man died Thursday night after being hit in the head with a brick in a clash Wednesday. A 15-year-old boy was in critical condition Wednesday after appearing to be hit in the head by a tear-gas canister. On Monday, police shot a 21-year-old pro-democracy protester and pro-democracy protesters set a man arguing with them on fire.
Security veteran and Democratic Party lawmaker James To Kun-sun called for the government to clarify if soldiers came out because of an official order from the military based on Garrison Law or another legal basis.
"This time, it doesn't look like voluntary service," To Kun-sun said. "It's more like assisting the maintenance of public order."
To Kun-sun said that if the soldiers are disregarding Garrison Law "it could be dangerous."
"They may say ... soldiers have been attacked ... then they can use heavy weapons," To Kun-sun said. "This is the most worrying thing."
A soldier in a video circulating on social media said cleanup had nothing to do with Hong Kong government.
"We initiated this! 'Stopping violence and ending chaos' is our responsibility," he said, quoting a phrase coined by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The soldiers have not been involved in public community work in more than a year. In October of last year, more than 400 soldiers were deployed to help remove fallen trees in Hong Kong's parks after Typhoon Mangkhut.
Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-Chiu said last year the army could freely decide to send soldiers to perform voluntary services outside military sites and local government had no record of how often this occurred.