Hong Kong police have formed a quasi-military elite squadron and shelled out tens of millions of dollars building an arsenal comprised mainly of semi-automatic pistols and high-powered automatic rifles.

Heavily armed officers from the crack squad have started rubbing shoulders with commuters and tourists aboard packed trains and inside railway stations since the new year. They are trained to use their guns to respond to any threat to protect the 5.8 million passengers who use Hong Kong’s subway system, known as the MTR, on any given day.

But city officials and the police chief were careful not to spook the public with the creation of an extra swift tactical response team. The government insisted there was no specific intelligence suggesting the city was a potential target for a terrorist attack. In the meantime, the government assessment indicated a “moderate” threat level.

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Policemen carrying backpacks patrol a train station. Photo: Handout

The newly formed Railway Response Team initially has about 40 members, who will carry out high-profile patrols wearing their full uniform, which includes firearms like the Austrian-made Glock 17 pistol and the German-made 9mm Heckler & Koch MP5 automatic.

Both weapons are widely used by SWAT units overseas. The Hong Kong team will also be armed with the Swiss-made SIG Sauer SIG516 rifle.

When deployed, officers will wear packs weighing about 35 pounds, as well as bulletproof helmets and vests and night-vision goggles for operations in dark railway tunnels or stations if the power is cut off, according to local media reports.

They are meant to be seen by passengers as a maximum deterrence, in either interchange stations or on those serving popular shopping precincts. Central, Admiralty, Causeway Bay, Wan Chai, Mong Kok, Tsim Sha Tsui and Kowloon Tong stations will be among the first to be covered.

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A police anti-terrorism drill inside MTR stations. Photos: Handout

Police have conducted numerous large-scale drills inside stations and train carriages simulating hostage taking, stabbing, shoot-outs,  gunbattles and evacuation scenarios to hone their skills.

A police source revealed that their goal was to shorten response time to any incident anywhere to within six minutes.

The team’s creation is part of the government’s HK$265 million  (US$33.8 million) injection to further beef up the police’s capabilities to counter terrorism.

The force already has a 170-strong Counterterrorism Response Unit, a slick but low-key unit established in 2009, that patrols the city’s streets, consular premises and critical infrastructure.

After a rigorous three-phase appraisal and background screening, all  CTRU members have to go through a 10-week, highly intensive training course before being posted with the team.

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Police’s CTRU members participating in a drill. Photo: Handout

Despite an arson attack at Tsim Sha Tsui station by a man suffering  from mental disorders in February 2017 in which dozens were injured, public transport operators including the MTR say they have no plan to screen passengers’ bags because of practical reasons.

However, Hong Kong has not had any terrorist attacks to date and it is also wildly seen as one of the world’s safest and most stable cities with  serious crime rates significantly lower than those in New York, London, Paris and Tokyo, according to government data.

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