China has imposed heavy security measures in major cities in the country's northern region of Inner Mongolia as ethnic Mongolians planned to step up protests over the destruction of their grasslands and erosion of culture.
On Sunday, hundreds of paramilitary policemen and police in riot gear sealed off streets and patrolled Xinhua Square in Hohhot, the region's capital. Parts of the region have been blocked off since Friday.
Authorities have also tightened security in the cities of Tongliao, Dongsheng, and Ulaanhad (in Chinese, Chifeng), where riot police were on red alert, according to the US-based Southern Mongolia Human Rights Information Center (SMHRIC).
Calls have spread online for more protests on Monday to back demands for the protection of the ethnic Mongolian rights.
"We urge Chinese authorities to see these protests as an opportunity to engage in dialogue with the Southern Mongolians and understand that these actions are an expression of a people's desire to achieve their constitutionally guaranteed rights," the SMHRIC said in a statement released Sunday.
The protests erupted last week following the death of a Mongolian herder, who was run over by a Han Chinese driving a coal mining truck across the fragile grasslands.
The killing of the herder, identified as Murgen, touched off tensions between grassland protection and industry in the resource-rich region.
The largest protests occurred on Wednesday, when 2,000 students gathered in front of the local government building in Xilingol, the county where Murgen was killed. Security in Xilingol also remains tight, SMHRIC said.
Despite the restrictions, around 200 students and herders in Ulaanhad gathered to protest on Saturday morning, although they were quickly dispersed by police, according to SMHRIC.
Residents have described the security situation as "martial law," a term which in Chinese can refer to sealed-off streets and a strong security presence.
Authorities have put universities and schools in the region under tight control, in order to prevent students from joining the protests.
Universities and middle schools in Hohhot were ordered to hold classes on Saturday and Sunday, and some schools were sealed off, Reuters reported.
One female resident of Hulun Buir League (prefecture), who identified herself as Zhang, told RFA that although there had been no demonstration in her area, over the weekend she received three text messages sent by the government to local cell phone users about Murgen's death.
Ethnic Mongolians, who make up almost 20 percent of Inner Mongolia's 23 million population, complain of destruction and unfair development policies in the region, which is China's largest producer of coal. The overwhelming majority of the people are Han Chinese.
"Very little benefits from the industrialization of the grasslands have been returned to the original inhabitants of the grasslands who have given up their lands and lifestyle and in exchange for the most part have been given a life of poverty," a statement from SMHRIC said.
China's Xinhua news agency reported that Inner Mongolia's Communist Party chief Hu Chunhua said on Friday that "public anger has been immense" and that he would meet with students.
"We must correctly handle the relationship between the exploration of resources and the protection of the interests of people" in Inner Mongolia, he said.
Reported by Rachel Vandenbrink.