Three senior police officers in Hong Kong have insisted they are not aware of any plans for Chinese forces to join efforts to quell mass demonstrations in the city.
It came after satellite images appeared to show paramilitary exercises taking place in a neighbouring city in mainland China.
The officers added that they are unsure whether they would be informed ahead of time if Chinese paramilitary or army forces were deployed in Hong Kong.
Protests that began in early June have paralysed parts of the territory, including its international airport, and led to more than 700 arrests.
The largely peaceful rallies attended by tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents have increasingly concluded in clashes between some protesters and police.
While protesters have thrown bricks, petrol bombs and other objects at law enforcement, riot police have countered with tear gas and rubber bullets in an attempt to disperse crowds.
The senior police officers said the situation is “worse than Occupy Central” – a 79-day pro-democracy sit-in in 2014.
While the current movement was initially a response to now-suspended extradition legislation, the focus has since shifted to democracy and demands for an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality.
No officer has been disciplined for use of excessive force since the protests began, according to the senior police officers.
“It’s difficult to say if we are really losing public support,” one officer said.
Another officer referred to a “silent majority” of Hong Kong residents who support the police but are afraid to publicly voice their opinions.
Residents of neighbourhoods hosting the protests have taken to heckling police and calling them “gangsters” after media footage showed some officers swinging their batons at protesters and firing rubber bullets and tear gas at close range.
The senior police officers said about 300 of their colleagues have had their personal information shared online. In some cases, people have appeared at officers’ homes at odd hours or circulated photos of their children.
China’s ambassador to the UK said on Thursday the Beijing government will not “sit on its hands” if the situation in Hong Kong continues to deteriorate after more than two months of near-daily street protests.
Liu Xiaoming said extremists masquerading as pro-democracy activists are dragging Hong Kong “down a dangerous road”.
He said if the unrest becomes “uncontrollable, the central government would not sit on its hands and watch”.
He added: “We have enough solutions and enough power within the limit of the Basic Law to quell any unrest swiftly,” referring to Hong Kong’s mini-constitution adopted after the former British colony was handed over to China in 1997.
“We hope this will end in an orderly way. In the meantime we are fully prepared for the worst.”
The satellite photos show what appear to be armoured personnel carriers and other vehicles belonging to China’s paramilitary People’s Armed Police parked in a sports complex in the city of Shenzhen, across the border in Hong Kong, in what some have interpreted as a threat from Beijing to use increased force against protesters.
China’s Defence Ministry has pointed to a legal provision that would allow Hong Kong-based People’s Liberation Army troops to be deployed for “public order maintenance” at the request of the city government.
The troops, called the Hong Kong Garrison, released a promotional video earlier this month that showed soldiers partaking in a “riot drill” in which they fired tear gas and water cannons at people who appeared to be protesters.
Hong Kong authorities, however, have maintained that they are capable of handling the situation themselves.
The senior police officials said they have 3,000 officers who are currently deployed for riot control operations and hundreds others to draw from.
Meanwhile, in a possible hopeful sign for the opposition, a leader of an earlier protest movement imprisoned on public disorder charges was released on bail on Thursday.
Benny Tai was sentenced to 16 months in April as one of nine leaders put on trial for their part in a 2014 drive for universal suffrage known as the Umbrella Movement.
He was allowed to return home on £10,000 cash bail but was barred from leaving Hong Kong and will have his appeal heard in late February, according to the court.
- Press Association