Police in China's northern Inner Mongolia region are holding dozens of people after firing tear-gas, water cannon and rubber bullets at crowds protesting chemical pollutoin over the weekend, ethnic Mongolian protesters said on Monday.
The clashes came after the authorities mobilized some 2,000 riot police to end three weeks of protests over alleged pollution from a chemical plant near Daachin-tal (in Chinese, Daqintala) village in Naiman Banner, the Mongolian equivalent of a county.
Local residents say the Naiman Chemical Refinery Zone has been polluting the area with toxic waste, and have staged protests which read: "Strongly protest serious pollution from the chemical refinery!" and "Give the Naiman people back their clean water and blue sky!"
Video clips of the protest published by the U.S.-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center (SMHRIC) show police in full riot gear chasing protesters, with sporadic bursts of what sounds like gunfire.
Dozens of people were detained in the clashes, while more than 100 were sent to hospital with injuries sustained during the melee, local residents and SMHRIC said.
"More than 1,000 local people went [out in protest], to prevent the vehicles carrying raw materials from getting into the refinery," a villager who asked to remain anonymous told RFA on Monday.
"The riot police and fire brigade came rushing over here, and attacked people with electric batons, and beat them up," he said. "More than 2,000 police came over here yesterday evening."
"More than 170 people were injured, and they detained more than 70 people," he said. "They haven't yet released those they detained."
"They used rubber bullets, and some people had head injuries from them," the villager said. He also confirmed that tear gas fired on the crowds.
A resident from another village, around a kilometer from the refinery, said some 20 people had been detained from his village alone. "There were several villages involved in this," the resident of Daolisui village told RFA.
An official who answered the phone at the Naiman Banner government offices on Monday said the government is doing everything it can to mediate the dispute.
"We take this very seriously, and our leaders are basically all down there at the scene, to see what's going on," the official said.
But he declined to comment further. "I didn't go there, so there are a lot of things I'm not sure about," he said.
An ethnic Mongolian resident identified by a single name Geegee also told SMHRIC that rubber bullets were fired on the crowd.
"Rubber bullets are being shot at protesters, and high-pressure water guns and tear gas are also being used," she said.
"Yesterday, about 100 people were injured and 50 were arrested. One of the injured was confirmed dead in the hospital today," Geegee told SMHRIC, although RFA was unable to confirm the reported death.
Soaring miscarriage rate
She said local people had become alerted to the possibility of toxic discharge from the chemical plant after a number of villagers got sick, and pregnant women began to miscarry.
"An increasing number of villagers have become sick, and the miscarriage rate is soaring among pregnant women here," she said. "Our livestock is being poisoned to death, and crops and vegetables are inedible."
Local authorities sent in riot police from neighboring counties and nearby Tongliao and Ulaanhad (in Chinese, Chifeng) cities, SMHRIC quoted local people as saying.
"Defending our rights to grazing land, clean water, and clean air is the main goal of this protest," a resident identified as Changgee was quoted as saying.
A third local resident told RFA that the company that operates the refinery is based in the northern Chinese province of Hebei, which borders Beijing.
"They say they are producing dyestuffs, but there is a huge amount of gas being emitted, which you can smell for more than 10 miles around when there's a northwesterly wind blowing," the resident said.
Riot police on Monday had formed a defensive cordon around the chemical refinery zone and have prevented villagers from gathering together to continue to the protest, SHMRIC said.
"The Internet is cut off completely," it quoted a local resident, Munkhee, as saying.
"Even phone calls seem to be blocked now. I can't even talk to my friends in the village. Photos and video clips cannot be transferred from my phones," he told SMHRIC via web chat application.
Ethnic Mongolian rights activist Xinna told RFA that the ruling Chinese Communist Party is undergoing its toughest crackdown on ethnic Mongolian dissent in its history.
"The fact that there were 2,000 police there shows that they are afraid," Xinna said. "They are afraid because the local people are in the right ... their existence is under serious threat."
She said the local government had brought in 19 polluting enterprises to the refinery zone.
"We must engage in what is a righteous struggle," Xinna said.
Ethnic Mongolians, who make up almost 20 percent of Inner Mongolia's population of 23 million, are increasingly complaining of widespread environmental destruction and unfair development policies in the region.
Clashes between Chinese companies and herding communities are common in the region, which borders the independent country of Mongolia.
Reported by Luo Bote and Ren Ji for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.