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Saturday, December 10, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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China seals town after police kill protesters

The Associated Press

BEIJING — Armed with guns and shields, hundreds of riot police sealed off a southern Chinese village after fatally shooting as many as 20 demonstrators and were searching for the protest organizers, according to villagers and a newspaper report today.

The shootings in Dongzhou, in southern Guangdong province, marked an escalation in the social protests that have convulsed the Chinese countryside.

During the demonstration, thousands of people gathered to protest the amount of money the government offered as compensation for land to be used to construct a wind-power plant.

Police started firing into the crowd, killing as many as 10 people, mostly men, and wounding up to 20, villagers reached by telephone said Friday.

On Saturday, Hong Kong's Apple Daily newspaper raised the death toll to nearly 20, citing villagers. There was no explanation for the discrepancy.

Hong Kong's South China Morning Post newspaper today quoted villagers who said authorities were trying to conceal the deaths by offering families money to turn over bodies. "They offered us a sum but said we would have to give up the body," an unidentified relative of one slain villager, Wei Jin, 31, was quoted as saying. "We are not going to agree."

Police were carrying photos of villagers and trying to find people linked to the protest, the newspaper said, citing villagers' accounts.

Although security forces often use tear gas and clubs to disperse demonstrators, it is extremely rare for them to fire into a crowd — as the military did in putting down pro-democracy demonstrations around Tiananmen Square in 1989, when hundreds, if not thousands, were killed. Tuesday's shootings marked the deadliest known use of force by security teams against Chinese civilians since the Tiananmen Square killings.

The number of protests in China's vast, poverty-stricken countryside has risen in recent months as anger comes to a head over land seizures, corruption and a yawning wealth gap that experts say threatens social stability. The government says about 70,000 such conflicts occurred last year, although many more are believed to go unreported.

State media have not mentioned Tuesday's incident, and the provincial and local governments have repeatedly refused to comment. That is typical in China, where the ruling Communist Party controls the media and lower-level authorities are leery of releasing information without permission from the central government.

The clashes also have become increasingly violent, with injuries suffered on both sides and huge amounts of damage done to property as protesters vent their frustration in the face of indifferent or bullying authorities.

Dongzhou villagers said they were nervous and scared, and most did not want to be identified for fear of retribution.

A 14-year-old girl said a local official visited the village Friday and called the shootings "a misunderstanding."

"He said he hoped it wouldn't become a big issue," the girl said. "This is not a misunderstanding. I am afraid. I haven't been to school in days."

She added: "Come save us."

"The riot police are gathered outside our village. We've been surrounded," another woman said, sobbing. "Most of the police are armed. We dare not go out of our home."

She continued, "We are not allowed to buy food outside the village. They asked the nearby villagers not to sell us goods. The government did not give us proper compensation for using our land. ... Now they come and shoot us."

One woman said 20 people were wounded.

"They gathered because their land was taken away and they were not given compensation," she said. "The police thought they wanted to make trouble and started shooting."

She said several hundred police with guns were in the roads outside the village Friday.

"These reports of protesters being shot dead are chilling," Catherine Baber, deputy Asia director at Amnesty International, said in a statement. "The increasing number of such disputes over land use across rural China, and the use of force to resolve them, suggest an urgent need for the Chinese authorities to focus on developing effective channels for dispute resolution."

Like many cities in China, Shanwei, the city where Dongzhou is located, has cleared suburban land once used for farming to build industrial zones. State media have said the industrial zone is slated to have three electricity-generating plants — a coal-fired plant, a wave-power plant and a wind farm.

Shanwei already has a large wind farm on an offshore island, with 25 turbines. Another 24 are set for construction.

Earlier reports said a dispute over land compensation also disrupted the building of the $743 million coal-fired power plant, a government-funded project for the province.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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