Chinese soldiers help clean up streets after protests.

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The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers in shorts and t-shirts appeared in Hong Kong streets on Saturday, helping residents clean up debris after anti-government protests blocked roads.

The presence of PLA troops on the streets, even in such a role, could stoke further controversy over the Chinese ruled territory’s autonomous status.

Hong Kong has been rocked by more than five months of demonstrations by protesters angry at perceived Communist Party meddling in the former British colony, which was guaranteed its freedoms when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

Beijing denies interfering and has blamed the unrest on foreign influences.

Clashes between protesters and police have become increasingly violent. China has said any attempt at independence for Hong Kong will be crushed, but troops have remained inside their base.

According to President Xi Jinping, in which he denounced the unrest said “stopping violence and controlling chaos while restoring order is currently Hong Kong’s most urgent task”.

Saturday’s clean-up followed some of the worst violence seen this year, after a police operation against protesters at the Chinese University of Hong Kong on Tuesday.

The authorities have since largely stayed away from at least five university campuses that had been barricaded by thousands of students and activists who stockpiled petrol bombs, catapults, bows and arrows and other weapons.

Many protesters appeared to have left the campuses by late Saturday though some remained behind to man barricades. Hong Kong’s Cross-Harbour Tunnel was still blocked by protesters occupying Polytechnic University.

Earlier, hundreds of pro-China demonstrators gathered by the city’s legislature and police headquarters, waving Chinese and Hong Kong flags. Some held up posters reading “Police we stand with you”, while others chanted “Support the police”.

Pro-China protests have so far attracted much smaller numbers than those angry at Beijing.

Olusola Akintonde