Chinese Police Detain Man Over Deadly Ningxia Bus Fire

china-busfire-jan052015.jpg Police investigate the scene of a bus fire in Helan county, China, Jan. 5, 2016.

Authorities in the northern Chinese region of Ningxia are holding a man suspected of setting fire to a bus filled with passengers, killing 17 people and injuring dozens more during morning rush hour on Tuesday, official media reported.

Police detained suspected arsonist Ma Yongping after the blaze sparked a manhunt in Ningxia's Helan county, ruling Chinese Communist Party paper the People's Daily said in a post to its official microblog account.

The fire started aboard the 301 bus route at around 7:08 a.m. outside a furniture store in Helan county, close to the regional capital of Yinchuan, state news agency Xinhua reported.

The bus was operated by state-owned Yinchuan Public Transport Co., and was heading for the city's railway station, it said.

Photos posted of the blaze online showed the entire bus aflame and engulfed with black smoke.

Some posts suggested that Ma had started the fire out of anger over back pay owed to him by an employer. However, official media said his motivation was still unknown.

An employee who answered the phone at the Ningxia Medical University hospital on Tuesday said many of the injured had been transferred to a special burns unit.

"They're no longer in the main building here, but they have been sent to the burns unit," the employee said. "Some went into intensive care, and some are under observation."

Flames, smoke

A Helan resident who asked to remain anonymous said she had seen the fire and smoke rising from the scene along with large numbers of police and emergency vehicles.

"It's pretty scary ... a lot of people on that bus were just going to work in the morning," she said. "I wasn't at the scene, but I saw flames and smoke; I think the police had already got there by that time."

She added: "I feel very sad for those poor, unlucky people. It even occurred to me to take the bus to work this morning."

"Now I won't dare to take the bus."

Another resident surnamed Li said local people are now waiting anxiously for more information.

"We are waiting to see what the government is going to say," she said. "There is always such a delay in getting information, and some people are wondering if their friends and family were killed or injured."

"Of course we are all very worried; it could be the friend of a friend, or someone in our family [in the bus]."

An employee at a business near where the suspected arson attack took place said the entire area had been cordoned off for several hours.

"We didn't go to work today; we were in shock," the employee said. "The incident happened when we were on our way to work but we didn't see it."

"They have cleaned everything up now, and everything has returned to normal."

"The cordon has just been lifted."

Public acts of violence

Public acts of violence, often involving fires or homemade explosives, are a longstanding problem in China, which observers say are symptomatic of deep social tensions and numerous injustices that have no immediate solution.

In July 2014, China's Ministry of Public Security ordered operators of subways, buses, and other transport networks nationwide to post security guards on all public transport in the wake of a fatal bus fire in the southern province of Guangdong.

Guangzhou police detained a 25-year-old man surnamed Ou in connection with the attack that left two people dead and 32 injured.

Ou told police he had started the fire out of frustration at his gambling debts, official media reported at the time.

The majority of those injured in the fire had severe burns, and were transferred to the Guangdong Provincial People's Hospital on Wednesday.

Earlier in 2014, a bus in the eastern city of Hangzhou was destroyed in a fire that injured 32 people, many of them critically, in what police said was "not a terrorist attack."

And in March, a man accused of starting a bus fire in the southern city of Guiyang that killed six people reportedly said he was taking "revenge on society" when he lit up a barrel of gasoline on the vehicle, causing it to burst into flames.

Chinese authorities have kept up a stranglehold on petitioners and rights activists in recent years, subjecting thousands to arbitrary detention in unofficial "black jails," which fuels their sense of desperation, rights groups say.

Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ho Si-yuen for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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