Riot police patrolled a tense southern Chinese township yesterday nearly a week after demonstrations over land compensation were ended by police opening fire on protesters.
As light fell, 14 or 15 police vans and other vehicles headed in a motorcade into the area from the nearby city of Shanwei. It was unclear if they were troop reinforcements or replacements.
China has confirmed police shot dead three people "in alarm" during an attack on Tuesday on a wind power plant in the Guangdong province township of Dongzhoukeng, a rural area dotted with vegetable and fish farms and some small factories.
A government official in the nearby city of Shanwei said the police official who ordered the shooting had been detained. Hong Kong's Ta Kung Pao newspaper said the man was the deputy chief of the Shanwei Public Security Bureau.
Two farmers said yesterday five protesters, in their 20s and 30s, had been killed and many had been injured and were hiding at home, fearful of going to hospital. Another resident said about 20 men were still missing from the village.
"They were all good people," one of the farmers said on the outskirts of the sandy township where one of the few signs of life was riot police streaming off buses and taking up position.
China has seen a series of bloody protests pitting residents against local officials over the issue of land rights as breakneck development swallows up farmland and compensation is watered down due to corruption. The ruling Communist Party makes stability a top priority, fearful of any challenge to its monopoly on power.
Analysts said the violent outcome of the protest showed both how stretched China's security forces were and that directives on how to handle such incidents were often unclear, leaving the responsibility with local police.
Could spin out of control
"Increasingly, their number one fear is that in handling protests they're going to ham-fistedly use force and cause these things to spin out of control," said Murray Scot Tanner of the RAND Corporation.
"That seems to be exactly what happened here," said Tanner, who specializes in Chinese law enforcement and social stability.
The riots over compensation for land lost to a wind power plant engulfed both Dongzhoukeng and neighboring Shigongliao and marked a level of violence rarely seen.
Human rights group Amnesty International said it was thought to be the first time Chinese police had fired on protesters since the military crushed the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989.
Estimates from residents and rights groups had put the number of dead between two to as many as 20.
"I was scared to death," said a farmer's wife called Li. "I can still remember the sound - pow, pow, pow."