Police in the Chinese capital sealed off a large section of the boulevard on iconic Tiananmen Square on Friday after a military jeep overturned and rescue services were called to extinguish a fire, eyewitnesses told RFA.
Footage of the scene shot by eyewitnesses and seen by RFA showed white smoke or steam billowing from a vehicle on the tarmac, just meters from where the portrait of late supreme leader Mao Zedong hangs over the Tiananmen Gate.
In scenes reminiscent of an Oct. 28, 2013 jeep suicide attack in the same location, rescue teams rushed to the scene while police moved back passersby, shouting at them to make way for a security cordon.
Five people, including two tourists, died in the 2013 attack, which the ruling Chinese Communist Party blamed on Islamic militants.
Video seen by RFA of Friday's incident showed a red prefix on the license plate of the jeep, indicating a military license for an off-road vehicle.
Beijing police said in a statement via their official microblog account that the incident was a "traffic accident."
"A motor vehicle overturned at 7.20 a.m. on the north side of the National Museum [on Chang'an Avenue], injuring the driver and a cyclist," the statement said, but gave no further details.
A Beijing resident who declined to be named said she thought the vehicle belong to the People's Armed Police (PAP) force.
"It looked like armed police, because they use those red letters, which I think were WJ [short for armed police, or wujing]," she said.
She said the incident may have been linked to the recent arrests of several top officials in the armed police, as part of President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption drive.
A source familiar with military affairs told RFA, information about the incident was restricted even within army and military circles.
"This is very mysterious ... a lot of people saw that it was a military license plate," the source. "The location was just meters away from the Ministry of Public Security and the Ministry of State Security, so very few cars would dare to drive recklessly on that stretch of road, particular military vehicles."
"I think that there must have been a chase or some other kind of emergency for them to overturn the jeep like that."
He confirmed that there had been a number of detentions in the higher echelons of the armed police in recent days.
"These jeeps are used all the time by the ministry, but the lower ranks aren't allowed to drive them," the source said. "So of course it's easy to link this with the recent internal clean-up operation in the ranks of the armed police, because that is what has been happening."
An officer who answered the phone at the Beijing municipal fire department's Tiananmen branch declined to comment on the incident.
"It's not convenient for me to tell you that," the officer said. "You can call the main fire brigade propaganda center, OK?"
And an officer who answered the phone at the Tiananmen Square police station said they didn't know the circumstances.
'Playing it down'
Petitioner Wu Jixin told RFA said the authorities appeared to be deliberately playing down the significance of the incident.
"They are just playing it down by saying it was an accident," Wu said. "Who knows what the government is playing at? I just don't think their account is necessarily correct; I don't think it was an accident."
"Accidents don't just happen there," she said. "For example, if petitioners try to commit suicide around there by drinking pesticide, the authorities never say it was a petitioner. They are afraid of the impact it might have."
Fellow petitioner Huang Xinmin agreed that the area is too tightly monitored for random accidents to happen there.
"I have never seen a traffic accident happen there," Huang said.
Reported by Wong Siu-san and Goh Fung for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Ding Wenqi for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.