Hundreds of protesters surrounded government buildings in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong on Tuesday, calling for the release of more than a dozen people who were injured and detained the day before in disturbances over pollution, local residents said.
Seventeen people were taken into custody on Monday as residents of Guangdong's Renhua county near Shaoguan city clashed with police after hundreds of local people surrounded county government offices in protest at high levels of lead in their blood.
Villagers blamed the lead pollution on an industrial area located near a local drinking water reservoir, where the authorities are planning a new waste disposal plant.
"[The waste disposal plant] has never had the agreement of the villagers," a protester surnamed Lai told RFA's Mandarin Service.
"We went to the county government ... and called on the county governor to come out and give us a response, but he didn't come down, so we went up to his office."
"We couldn't find him, so we sat there and waited for him ... but he wasn't very happy about it and still wouldn't come down," Lai said.
"At about 4.00 p.m., a lot of riot police arrived, and a lot of people were injured [in clashes] and got detained."
A woman who also gave the surname Lai said the villagers already feel they lack access to clean water.
"This waste disposal plant will pollute the environment and our sources of drinking water," she said. "We won't have any clean water to drink when that happens."
Many already affected
Local sources said around 50 percent of the population of Renhua's Yantou village have tested with higher-than-normal levels of lead in their blood, which had previously been blamed on two cement factories in the vicinity.
Later, the waste disposal plant was built on the same ground, upstream of the village, and just 50 meters from the reservoir.
Repeated calls to the Renhua county government offices went unanswered during office hours on Tuesday.
However, a government statement retweeted by Renhua protesters on social media sites said the government "paid great importance" to their complaint.
"[We] set up a task force to work at the scene to work compassionately, reasonably, and according to law with the villagers," the statement said.
"But even after eight hours of educational dialogue, the villagers didn't desist from their illegal actions ... so the police, in keeping with normal law enforcement procedures, took 17 of the troublemakers away from the scene for investigation at around 1600 [6:00 p.m.]," it said.
"This led the other villagers to leave the scene in an orderly manner."
An officer who answered the phone at the Renhua county police department declined to comment.
"I don't know about this; I only came to work today," he said.
Treated like criminals
A second villager, who declined to be named, said he had visited some of the detained protesters in a local hospital on Tuesday.
"They were in handcuffs, wrapped up in a treatment room, and the police prevented us from speaking to them," he said.
"They treated them like criminals ... I heard they were being held [in administrative detention] for 15 days."
He said several hundred people had returned to the county government on Tuesday to demand the release of the 17 protesters.
"We called on them to release them, but they said we would have to agree to the waste disposal plant before they would let them go," he said. "A deputy county governor said that to us."
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Fung Yat-yiu for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.