Officials in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, which has been hit by two separate mass protests this week, have released one detainee in the rebel village of Wukan, with two more slated for release on Friday, villagers said.
But as Guangdong provincial deputy Communist Party secretary Zhu Mingguo visited Wukan, which only last week saw angry villagers fight off riot police over the barricades, authorities moved to quell a second protest just 75 miles (121 kilometers) away in the seaside town of Haimen.
Official media on Thursday denied reports that people had died in recent clashes between Haimen residents angry at pollution from a nearby coal-fired power plant and police, but confirmed that five people had been detained by police for "vandalism."
Hundreds of disgruntled villagers from the fishing township gathered again on Thursday near a toll gate on an expressway in a third day of protest, Xinhua news agency reported. "Police officers were dispatched to maintain order," it said.
"There were a lot of police cars and fire engines parked at the side of the expressway," said an eyewitness surnamed Lin. "I also saw a lot of spent tear-gas canisters on the road."
"I am still on the expressway," he added. "I can see a lot of armed police."
Hong Kong television footage from Wednesday showed riot police firing tear gas canisters at a line of villagers on motorbikes.
Haimen residents have continued to protest in spite of promises from the Shantou city government, which oversees the town, that construction of a second phase of the power plant would be suspended.
Villagers say the current power plant, owned by energy giant Huaneng, emits poisonous smoke, and that they have seen an unprecedented rise in cancer cases and decreased fishing catches since the plant began operation.
Meanwhile, Zhu Mingguo's visit to Wukan on Thursday alongside the municipal Party secretary from nearby Shanwei city aimed to reassure villagers that there would be no wave of arrests in the wake of the protests, sparked by public anger over alleged official corruption, the sale of local farmland, and the death of a protester in police custody.
"He told us we could stop worrying; that they weren't going to be arresting people," said a local resident surnamed Li who heard Zhu speak during his hour-and-a-half visit to the village.
"He said the working party would investigate and bring justice for the villagers, and he wished us a happy New Year celebration."
But the visit still left many in Wukan feeling unhappy, as Shanwei Party secretary Zheng Yingxiong ignored requests to pay respects at the tomb of dead protester Xue Jinbo.
"Zheng...passed close by Xue Jinbo's tomb, and the villagers asked him to pay respects [by bowing] at the tomb," Li said. "He paid them no attention."
"He didn't dare to go to the tomb. What can you do?"
Zhu and Zheng were nevertheless welcomed to Wukan by villagers with banners, applauded when they spoke and thanked in person by many local residents.
A planned mass protest on Wednesday was called off at the last minute after officials made major concessions to the villagers, including formal recognition for their self-elected village committee.
A relative of released detainee Zhang Jiancheng said Zhang had lost a lot of weight during the days he had spent in police custody. "He is much, much thinner," the relative said. "I asked him if they beat him, and he said they didn't."
An editorial in the Communist Party newspaper, the People's Daily, said the escalation of the Wukan incident into open rebellion against the authorities had highlighted "mistakes made by local government."
"On this occasion, the working party led by the Guangdong provincial Party secretary calmed the situation because it was able to grasp the reasonable demands and interests of local people, something which the local authorities had failed to take seriously."
"If they had been able to listen earnestly to people's concerns and make fair judgments...the situation wouldn't have got out of control," the paper said.
It lauded Guangdong provincial Party secretary Wang Yang for negotiating an end to the conflict and "putting the people first." Wang is tipped by analysts for a move to the highest echelons of Chinese leadership at the 18th Party Congress next year.
On Thursday, China's main official newspapers published an account of a speech by Zhou Yongkang, chief of domestic security, who urged law-and-order cadres to ensure "a harmonious and stable social setting" ahead of the Party Congress.
Reported by Fung Yat-yiu for RFA's Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.