Dozens of people were injured and detained in clashes with security forces after tens of thousands of local residents took to the streets to call for a new railway line to stop in their neighborhood, authorities and local residents in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan said on Monday.
"More than 30 officials and police and 38 of the crowd were injured," a government statement said after mass demonstrations in Sichuan's Linshui county over the weekend that saw a huge security presence deployed to the area, sparking an angry reaction from previously peaceful protesters, eyewitnesses told RFA.
The statement, posted on the Linshui county government's official website, blamed the violence on a "small group" of more than 100 protesters, adding that more than 40 people were detained on Saturday, and more than 20 on Sunday.
But it denied unconfirmed reports of deaths in the violence, adding: "not one person died."
Tens of thousands of Linshui residents crowded onto the streets of the county town on Saturday morning, demanding that a planned new railway line linking Dazhou city to Chongqing pass through their county, rather than through the neighboring city of Guangan.
The protests continued on Sunday, as riot police and paramilitary police were drafted in to disperse the crowd, local residents said.
"The army came here [on Sunday]," a Linshui resident told RFA on Monday. "They even had armored vehicles, and there were ranks and ranks of them on guard, with their faces hidden, detaining people."
"To tell you the truth, we are pretty angry, because they were so brutal when they beat people up. They beat them around the head, so that they were bleeding."
"We have a lot of photos and video here, but we can't post them online," she said.
Paramilitary police used
Another resident, who also asked to remain anonymous, said they had also seen armed paramilitary police troops alongside riot police.
"They had armored cars there; I saw them yesterday," the resident said.
Meanwhile, a Linshui resident surnamed Hu said an estimated 200 people were detained on Saturday night alone, giving numbers far higher than those provided by the government statement.
"They detained more than 200 people ... and they haven't been released," Hu said. "They have continued to detain people, so I don't know how many they detained in total."
Video of the clashes obtained by RFA showed around a dozen black-clad riot police wielding shields and batons beating a young man who offered no resistance and who appeared to be trying to talk his way out of the situation, as another man fled the scene with blood on his face.
Further photos posted from the scene to Chinese social media sites and Twitter showed protesters hurling stones at police, while others showed civilians bleeding from the head, and still others showed rows of parked armored personnel carriers.
According to a protester surnamed Lin, the violence was triggered after the authorities in nearby Guangan dispatched riot police to the scene who beat protesters with batons.
Guangan is the hometown of late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping, and plans to route the railway there have caused strong resentment in Linshui.
Lin said some 100,000 people had turned out to protest in Linshui on Sunday.
"There were two gathering places in the county town, and there were 60-70,000 people at the largest one, and 30-40,000 at the smaller one," Lin said.
'Orderly, peaceful' at first
He said the demonstration on Sunday was "extremely orderly and peaceful," but that the clashes had begun later in the evening.
"The Guangan municipal government sent in the riot police to keep order, and I think that they were trying to break the crowd up into smaller sections," Lin said.
"In the process, they pushed a small girl to the floor with their riot shields, as they pushed sideways," he said.
"There was a middle-aged woman standing next to the little girl, and she went to pick the little girl up, and as soon as she moved to do that, the police started [to beat her]," he said.
"Then somebody shouted that Guangan had sent people here for a fight, and that's how it kicked off," he said.
He said that dozens of people had been sent to hospital after the fight.
"There are 50 or 60 people in the People's Hospital right now, and also in the other hospitals like the Xiehe and the Chinese medicine hospital," he said. "They are spread out because there wasn't room."
"There was a very large number of people injured," Lin added.
An employee who answered the phone at the Guangan People's Hospital on Monday confirmed that some of the injured were in the hospital, but declined to comment further.
"Yes ... you should call the propaganda department and ask about this," the employee said.
Police cars set on fire
Lin said the enraged crowd had set upon the police, burning three of their vehicles.
"I don't think the riot police handled the situation appropriately, and this made the crowd very angry," he said.
He said an estimated 100-200 people were detained.
"The police had some respite, and then they took advantage of the security lockdown to really beat up some people who were a bit slow to leave," Lin said.
"Then they detained all of them."
Lin said bystanders and people trying to walk past the area were also beaten up, and that many more local people came to town from outlying villages after the news began to spread via social media.
"Now, the authorities are trying to pass the buck onto so-called lawbreakers, but that is totally untrue," he said. "These are just a bunch of farming folk, and their demands and aims are very simple."
According to the government, the police used force on a "small group of troublemakers" who refused to leave the Linshui county exit ramp of a nearby expressway at around 4.30 p.m. on Sunday.
"Nobody was injured and there was no bloodshed during the entire incident," the statement, dated May 17 and signed by the ruling Chinese Communist Party secretary for Linshui county, said.
'We want people to know'
Another Linshui resident who declined to be named gave a similar account to Lin's.
"We usually keep public order here in Linshui ... [but] they sent a lot of riot police over here from Guangan, and they started beating up anyone they saw," the resident said.
"Some people were beaten to death," he added, although RFA was unable to confirm his report independently.
"A lot of people were beaten up and injured," he said. "Now, we want people across China to know about this incident."
"People were throwing broken bricks at police, and they pushed over some police cars," the resident said, adding: "They also set fire to two police cars."
He said order wasn't restored until even more riot police were dispatched to the scene.
A resident surnamed Su said the authorities appeared to have tightened control over the Internet in the region.
"Basically, the government is locking down any news about this incident," Su said. "It's going to be pretty hard to post anything [online], and even if you post it, it will get deleted pretty quickly."
Authorities in Guangan announced on their website on May 7 that the prestigious 125-mile high-speed train line between the Sichuan city of Dazhou and Chongqing would run through Guangan, not the coal-mining county of Linshui.
Staff at the Guangan municipal party secretary and county government offices turned down repeated requests for an interview on Monday.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.