HONG KONG: Enthusiasts in Hong Kong snapped up stamps issued to mark 20 years since the city was handed back to China by Britain Tuesday with a design paying tribute to the Chinese military.

The first stamp, released ahead of the July 1 anniversary, depicts marching troops from China´s People´s Liberation Army under the title "The Mighty and Civilised Forces".

It comes as the city remains deeply divided between those loyal to Beijing and groups demanding political reform who feel China is threatening Hong Kong´s cherished freedoms.

The semi-autonomous city´s liberties were guaranteed for 50 years in the handover agreement, but critics say China is trampling the deal with interference in a number of areas, from politics to education and the media.

The PLA is responsible for defending the city and has a garrison in central Hong Kong.

Some feared the army would be heavy-handed when it arrived in 1997, given the crackdown on student protesters in Beijing´s Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Instead it has maintained a very low profile and is barred from interfering in local affairs.

Collectors said the stamps, which cost HK$10 ($1.28) each and are on sale for three months, were more nationalistic than previous commemorations as they gathered to buy them at Hong Kong´s General Post Office.

"This stamp is very relevant and has a heavy military and Chinese flavour to it," explained collector Lok Ka-chung, 70, who said he would exchange them with fellow philatelists in mainland China.

"They´ve been stationed here for 20 years, they should be on the stamp," added collector Tommy Ying, a 40-year-old engineer.

Enthusiasts had queued earlier in June to buy PLA-themed envelopes, which have already sold out.

"The PLA´s Hong Kong Garrison has a very important sense of mission for Hong Kong, stabilising its economy and law and order," said Joe Kwan, 58, a retired civil servant, when he lined up for the envelopes.

Kwan said he would send them to friends in China and overseas.

Many of the collectors Tuesday had created special envelopes or backgrounds on which they stuck the new designs and received a custom-made date stamp.

Before Hong Kong was handed back to China, there was also a rush on stamps featuring the profile of Queen Elizabeth II.