HONG KONG (AFP) - China sees no need "so far" for its army to be deployed in Hong Kong to contain democracy protests, a Beijing official said Wednesday, without ruling out the prospect after violent overnight clashes.
Rumours have frequently swept protest camps that the People's Liberation Army (PLA), which maintains a garrison in the city, will be deployed if Beijing feels Hong Kong authorities cannot handle the demonstrations that erupted more than two weeks ago.
"So far, as I see it, there is no need for it," the Chinese government official told a rare briefing in Hong Kong on Wednesday. "Of course we hope that such a scenario will not unfold. The situation is gradually returning to normal," the official added on condition of anonymity.
Protests and roadblocks have convulsed Hong Kong over Beijing's insistence that it will vet candidates standing for election as the semi-autonomous city's next leader in 2017 - a move protesters have labelled as "fake democracy".
Demonstrators clashed with dozens of police using batons and pepper spray early Wednesday, in some of the worst violence since the demonstrations began.
Beijing has previously expressed confidence that the city's administration could handle the protests and the Hong Kong authorities have also ruled out any help from the PLA.
But rumours have frequently swirled of their possibly imminent involvement. Democracy advocates expressed alarm in late August after Chinese army vehicles, with short guns mounted on turrets, were photographed travelling down a major thoroughfare, in what they condemned as a show of "military might".
At least four PLA armoured personnel carriers were seen near the busy Jordan and Yau Ma Tei regions of the city, the Apple Daily newspaper reported at the time.
One Western security analyst previously told AFP that PLA deployment was "the least likely option" considered by Beijing to contain protests. Instead, he said, Hong Kong police could bolster their numbers by transporting officers from mainland China and placing them in local uniforms.
"That way they could still claim the protests were being handled internally," said the analyst who asked not to be named.