China detains commander of forces that killed protesting villagers

Monday, December 12, 2005

DONGZHOU, China -- China's government Sunday announced the detention of a commander whose forces opened fire on villagers protesting land seizures, trying to defuse anger over what could be the deadliest use of force since the killings around Tiananmen Square in 1989.

The government said three people were killed in the Dec. 6 violence over compensation for land in this coastal village northeast of Hong Kong. Witnesses put the death toll as high as 20.

The commander's "wrong actions" were to blame for the deaths, said a statement issued by the government of Guangdong province, where Dongzhou is located. It did not give his name or say what his actions were.

Suspects in China are often detained for questioning and further investigation before police decide whether to arrest them formally and file charges.

The government earlier defended the shootings, saying police opened fire after protesters, led by three men, armed themselves with knives, spears and dynamite and attacked a power plant before turning on authorities.

But the detention of the commander -- and the announcement -- is almost unprecedented for the communist government and suggested Chinese leaders were trying to mollify angry villagers. The government also promised to resolve local grievances over land seizures.

Clashes have become more violent and more frequent as rural tensions rise over seizures of land for use in building power plants, shopping malls and other projects. Farmers often complain they are paid too little, and local officials sometimes are accused of stealing compensation money.

On Sunday, red-and-white government banners hung at the entrance of Dongzhou, saying, "Following the law is the responsibility and obligation of the people."

Another tried to placate local anger, promising, "The people's government will always support the people of Dongzhou."

Villagers said the banners were put up the night of shootings after authorities tore down and burned ones hung by residents dissatisfied with compensation for land used to build the coal-fired power plant.

"The banners by the people used to be everywhere," said a woman who would give only her surname, Luo. "They were pleading for an investigation by the central government."

One farmer said he was also concerned about potential air pollution from the facility, which towers over the area's fertile fields of lettuce, mint and banana trees.

The dispute, villagers said, had been simmering for more than a year.

Most people interviewed did not want to be identified for fear of official retaliation.

The resentment boiled over on Dec. 6, when thousands of protesters gathered outside the power plant and at a main intersection of the village, witnesses said.

Police began firing the shots into the crowd around 6 p.m. and did not stop until the sun came up the next day, said a farmer who gave his surname, Chen.

"We were terrified. We all stayed inside and we heard countless rounds being fired," Chen said as he tended to his lettuce patch. "Even now, we all stay indoors after it gets dark."

Chen, whose land was not affected in the current conflict, said it is only a matter of time before his family gets involved.

"The local government will just keep taking away our land," he said. "They have guns. They have power. We have nothing."

A worker at the coal power plant who identified herself by her surname, Chen, said she was working the night of the shootings.

"I ran out to see what was going on," said Chen, whose last name is common in her village. "I saw many, many angry people. I was so scared, I ran home."

Luo said she heard people screaming, "Save me! Save me!"

On Sunday, at least 100 police with riot shields and helmets stood guard in the village. Police stopped vehicles at multiple roadblocks. There was no violence, but residents could be seen arguing with police.

Police trucks drove through the village blaring promises over loudspeakers that officials would deal with local grievances.

"Have confidence in the government," said the announcement in the local dialect. "This matter will be handled well."

By the government's count, China had more than 70,000 cases of rural unrest last year. The incidents have alarmed communist leaders, who are promising to spend more to raise living standards in the poor countryside, home to about 800 million people.

President Hu Jintao's government has made a priority of spreading prosperity to areas left behind by China's 25-year economic boom. But in many areas, families still live on the equivalent of a few hundred dollars a year.

"If you give farmers what they want, they will have no need to take up arms against you," said Chen, the plant worker.

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