Thousands of residents of the central Chinese province of Hubei gathered in angry protest on Friday amid a physical melee between their police force and that of neighboring Jiangxi province at a checkpoint on a bridge between the two.
At least five officers from the Jiangxi side were injured during the clashes, while some individuals who had turned out to support Hubei police upended a police car and destroyed other equipment belonging to Jiangxi officers including walkie-talkies, according to a police report seen by RFA.
"There was a clash between two groups on the bridge across the Yangtze River leading to Jiujiang in Xiaochi township, Huangmei county, Hubei," a Hubei resident surnamed Li told RFA. "The fighting is still going on."
"A police car from Jiujiang was overturned and the riot police were sent in as backup."
He said the fight had broken out at around 8.00 a.m., and the face-off was still going on at 4.00 p.m. local time.
The clashes came as travel restrictions on Hubei and its capital Wuhan were lifted after more than two months after the emergence of the coronavirus epidemic in Wuhan late last year.
Jiangxi police on a checkpoint on the bridge had allowed a group of migrant workers stranded during the lockdown to pass, but had refused to allow Hubei residents through.
After angry disputes broke out, Jiangxi police sent in riot police to seal off the entrance to Jiujiang.
Video footage posted to YouTube showed thousands of people marching up the approach road to the bridge, shoulder to shoulder with uniformed police from Hubei, shouting "Go Hubei! Go Hubei!"
Discrimination against Hubei residents
One clip showed a local official addressing the crowds through a megaphone. It was unclear whether his message was well-received.
A local resident who gave only his surname He said the past few months have seen people from Hubei -- who can be identified by their birthplace on their national ID cards -- being denied entry to places across China, including accommodation in hotels and guesthouses.
Some five million people are believed to have left Wuhan shortly before the lockdown began in January, and many have complained of widespread mistreatment elsewhere in China.
"All the other provinces are discriminating against people from Hubei right now; stopping them from coming in," He said.
"Everyone has been cheering Wuhan and Hubei during the epidemic, but they are very discriminatory towards them when they try to travel to where they are, and demand that they be isolated."
Repeated calls to the Jiujiang municipal police department and the Huangmei county government rang unanswered during office hours on Friday.
Travel restrictions were lifted on Thursday by the Hubei provincial epidemic control command center, although some precautions were to remain in place.
Threat of imported cases
China has closed its borders to foreign nationals, including those with valid visas and residence permits. Officials have been emphasizing the threat of imported cases in recent weeks, although many remain skeptical that the threat from the local epidemic has receded.
"The risk of sporadic cases and local outbreaks still exists," an op-ed article in the ruling Chinese Communist Party's official newspaper the People's Daily said on Friday.
"In particular, the risk of imported cases caused by the rapid spread of the international epidemic continuously increases," it said.
"We should not take a casual attitude and drop our guard. We must not allow the continuously improving situation to be reversed. Otherwise, all our labor will be lost," the paper warned.
President Xi Jinping told U.S. President Donald Trump during a phone call on Friday that he would have China's support in fighting the coronavirus, as the United States looks to become the next global hotspot.
Xi's offer of assistance came amid a long-running war of words between Beijing and Washington over the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Repeated comments by Trump referring to the pathogen as "the Chinese virus" have rankled Chinese authorities, who have launched a major propaganda campaign to change the narrative, suggesting that the virus didn't definitely originate in Wuhan.
Chinese health officials initially said they had traced the newly detected coronavirus to the now-shuttered Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, where the epidemic first emerged in December.
But the ruling Chinese Communist Party's propaganda machine has ordered officials to start questioning the narrative that the virus came from China.
Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian tweeted early this month that "patient zero" in the global pandemic may have come from the United States, drawing a sharp complaint from Washington.
Reported by Wong Siu-san and Lau Siu-fung for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.