At least 20 people were killed in ethnic clashes between the Muslim Hui minority and the Han majority in central China's Henan Province with martial law declared in the area, local residents said.
"There are more than 10 Hui Muslims who died and more than 10 Han died," said an employee surnamed Wang from the Zhongmou County taxi company.
He said it was the worst violence between the two groups in memory.
"Clashes have happened frequently before but this is the worst," he said.
"The two groups used farm tools to fight each other. Martial law has been declared in the village, people are prevented from getting in or out."
Nanren village, near the southern bank of the Yellow River in Zhongmou County, was one of the flashpoints of the confrontation, according to the imam with the village mosque.
He said at least six people died in Nanren and the unrest had yet to be quelled.
"Two Huis died here, and four or five members of the Han nationality," the imam, surnamed Hu, said by telephone.
He said the clash erupted late last week when Hui truck drivers from Nanren tried to pass through a village mostly inhabited by Han Chinese and one of them got beaten up over a traffic dispute.
Soon after that incident, thousands of Han Chinese surrounded Nanren village, and a confrontation developed in which a number of houses were burnt down and a brick factory was destroyed, Hu said.
The fatalities that Hu was informed about happened during this clash, which was only put down when troops from the regular and paramilitary People's Armed Police arrived, he said.
He said he had heard vague reports of a similar clash in another nearby village on Sunday, although he had no details.
A female officer in the area's main police station said she was one of the only ones left as her colleagues were out trying to control the disturbances.
"Normally, there are several hundred police here, but they have all gone to the scene," she said. "The People's Armed Police has also gone to the scene."
The New York Times reported that almost 150 people died in the violence but locals have played this figure down.
"Nearly 150 dead sounds like too much," said a local reporter. "Maybe it's the number of casualties, dead and injured put together."
The New York Times offered a different explanation of the confrontation than the imam, saying it erupted when a Hui taxi driver fatally struck a six-year-old Han Chinese girl.
Chinese state media yesterday carried no report about the clashes, and local journalists in the region said a news blackout was in force.
"We want to report about it, but the central government doesn't want us to," said a journalist with Henan Daily. "They are afraid to trigger conflict among the ethnic groups."
China's Huis are descendants of Arab and Persian traders who have over the centuries mixed so thoroughly with the Han Chinese that they are virtually indistinguishable from each other apart from different customs and dress codes.
The Huis are generally considered among China's best assimilated minorities, although occasional clashes with other groups are known to have occurred.
In early 2002, Huis clashed with Tibetans in a county of northwestern Qinghai province, leading to a large number of injuries and a legal aftermath in which several Huis were sentenced to long jail terms.