The southwestern Chinese megacity of Chongqing, at the center of an unfolding political drama, was under police and army control on Wednesday following large-scale clashes in its Wansheng district between thousands of local residents and police, residents said.
A Wansheng resident surnamed Chen said large numbers of police and military personnel had been deployed in the area following two days of violence and demonstrations.
"The army is here. There are a large number of trucks. The armed police vehicles came too," she said. "Yesterday the police from Qijiang beat up some students who had just got out of school at 9.00 p.m."
The clashes were not obviously connected to the purging of ousted populist Chongqing ruling Chinese Communist Party chief Bo Xilai from high-ranking posts, but began around the same time as his ouster announcement via the official Xinhua news agency late on Tuesday.
Shortly afterwards, Xinhua also reported the arrest of Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, who is a suspect in the murder of British national Neil Heywood last November.
The riots were triggered by a decision to merge Wansheng district with neighboring Qijiang county earlier this year, according to online reports. Residents of Wansheng District are worried their living standards and economic conditions will be hit by the merger, said the reports.
An employee surnamed Wang who answered the phone at the Liushi Guesthouse on Dongbei Road in downtown Chongqing said many businesses had shut down in the city, and police were patrolling every street and stopping suspicious-looking people for questioning.
"There are a lot [of police]. There are police all over the streets. None of the shops and restaurants is open for business. Things are so tense now, we daren't go outside to take a look."
An overturned police vehicle with its windscreen smashed.
The names of Wansheng, Qijiang and Chongqing were blocked Wednesday on popular microblog sites, but some bloggers were able to upload photos reportedly taken from Wansheng that showed streets full of thousands of protesters and swarms of riot police, plus images of some people with blood-covered faces.
Protesters in the photos carried banners which read "Give us back Wansheng district" and "We need to eat."
An eyewitness surnamed Ma said he had never seen so many people on the street in a demonstration as had appeared on Tuesday evening, and that large numbers of police were deployed very rapidly to the scene.
"There were a lot of police. At least 4,000 or 5,000," Ma said. "There were regular police, armed police and regular soldiers too."
"There were more than 10,000 people there," he added. "A lot of people got hurt."
"Of course they were detaining people," Ma said.
Protesters blocked the entry road to national highway 303 on Wednesday, continuing a protest they began on Tuesday.
An eyewitness working for a motor vehicle parts company right near the exit estimated that the crowd reached around 10,000 at its height.
"There are a lot of people. There are people everywhere," he said. "That's right [they are on the entrance to the highway]."
He said some of the protesters had surrounded police vehicles. "They were pushing and pulling them, but it wasn't as scary as last night."
An official who answered the phone at the Qijiang district government offices on Wednesday declined to comment on the clashes.
"I don't know about this," the official said. "I will give you the number and you can contact the propaganda department."Pensions
On Wednesday, the Chongqing government posted a statement on its website saying the city would safeguard pensions and medical benefits for Wansheng residents. It also said Wansheng would enjoy the same favorable policies as it did before the merger.
A resident surnamed Cai also said that thousands of people had demonstrated again on Wednesday following the clashes on Tuesday night.
"Yesterday evening there was a huge disturbance after a lot of people from Wansheng district got together and blocked the road," she said.
"Today several thousand, maybe 10,000 of them went to block the highway," she added.
"I heard they were even beating up primary school students, and that someone even died [Tuesday] evening." RFA was unable to verify this report.
She said residents of Wansheng, a coal-mining district of China's 25-million strong megacity, were angry because they stood to lose valuable state subsidies linked to the coal industry once their district was merged with another.
"The national government has been given a certain amount of funding to Wansheng because it is a resource city," Cai said. "There are a lot of government subsidies available for people who live in designated resource areas, and these have been taken away from us by Qi county."
The crowds had dispersed by Wednesday evening, Cai said.
"Just now I went down there and I saw that there were a large number of people leaving," she said. "It seems that the people who were gathered there have already gone, and calm has returned."Injured
Radio Television Hong Kong reported on Wednesday that at least 500 people had been injured in clashes between demonstrators and police.
"This is tragic, so saddening," said an elderly eyewitness who declined to be named. "You should come here and see for yourself."
He added: "Wansheng district will be swallowed up by Qijiang like a serpent, leaving 280,000 people in dire poverty, so people are unhappy. We want to be able to exist. There will be no welfare or benefits."
"We have the rank of a small city, but we are being swallowed up by an entity with the [higher] rank of county. All of the money the state gives us, our sweat and blood, will be given to Qijiang."
A Wansheng traffic policeman said order had returned to the embattled district on Wednesday.
"The traffic has pretty much [returned to normal]," the policeman said.
In their statement on Wednesday, the Chongqing government promised to look carefully into the demands of the people.
It called on people to refrain from using "illegal tactics" and vowed to punish severely anyone caught smashing and looting.
Photos posted by local residents on popular microblogging services were deleted by China's Internet censors on Tuesday and Wednesday.Power struggle
Tuesday's announcements were the first official word on the fate of Bo, who was removed from his post as Chongqing Party secretary on March 15 amid rampant speculation of a power struggle among China's secretive political elite ahead of a key leadership succession later this year.
Bo's removal from the ruling Communist Party's powerful Central Committee and Politburo effectively ends the career of one of China's rising political stars, and has sparked ideological tensions between right and left in the Party.
A Chongqing resident surnamed Zhu said the city's residents were still reeling from the sudden change in the political atmosphere in the wake of Bo's ouster.
"We haven't really learned much about where things are going since Bo was removed from office," Zhu said. "All we ordinary people hope for is to be dealt with fairly and our problems resolved."
"Then we will be satisfied."
The Party newspaper, the People's Daily, said in a commentary on Wednesday that Bo was guilty of "serious infringements" of Party discipline during his tenure in Chongqing.
It said the government would pursue anyone else who was implicated, regardless of how high they ranked in China's political hierarchy.Reported by Jiang Pei for RFA's Mandarin service, and by Lin Jing and Hai Nan for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.