Deadly ethnic clashes between Hui Muslims and Han Chinese in central China were met yesterday with a military blockade and a news blackout as officials attempted to curb the unrest and cover it up.
Despite the heavy presence of paramilitary police in Zhongmou, the rural county in Henan Province where a sudden outburst of violence killed at least seven, possibly many more, local residents remained uneasy.
"We don't dare go out in the fields to work," said a peasant woman in Nanren village, which is predominantly Muslim and has been a flashpoint in the riots that began last Thursday and were only brought under control on Sunday.
Farmers from Nanren clashed with their neighbors in Nanwei, which is Chinese, after tempers flared over a traffic dispute. As well as the dead, 42 were injured, state-run Xinhua news agency said.
Locals disputed the official toll, saying as many as 20 had lost their lives as ethnic animosities flared across this county of rice fields fed by the water of the Yellow River.
Eighteen people were arrested, according to Xinhua, which carried a brief report only on its English-language service, which targets a mainly foreign readership.
None of the Chinese media mentioned the unrest and reports of the incident were blacked out when broadcast by the BBC and CNN television networks.
"All the 18 detained are Han Chinese," a teacher at a Nanren elementary school told reporters. "They were held because they killed a Hui child who was on his way to school."
On Tuesday, Nanren resembled a ghost town, as police officers and communist party leaders patrolled the streets to prevent new disturbances, locals said.
There were unconfirmed reports Muslims from other parts of China had tried to get to Nanren to join the fight.
Some of them attempted to travel to Henan by train, but were prevented by police from getting off, while others arrived in buses and managed to break through the cordons, according to locals.
Foreign journalists trying to enter Nanren Monday were either turned back or detained.
Most residents in Zhengzhou, the Henan provincial capital less than 40km east of Zhongmou, appeared to have heard only vague rumors about the riots, and many were shocked as the vehemence of the clashes.
China's Huis are descendants of Arab and Persian traders. Over the centuries they have mixed so thoroughly with the Han Chinese that they are indistinguishable from each other but for religion, customs and dress codes.
In related developments, officials have vowed to "severely punish" organizers of a mass protest in southwest China amid a simmering conflict over farmland requisition for a hydroelectric project, residents said yesterday.
Around 100,000 people are to be relocated to make way for the Pubugou dam in Sichuan Province's Hanyuan County, and many are unhappy at the compensation payments offered.
Tempers boiled over on Thursday and Friday last week when villagers said at least one person was killed and scores were injured as tens of thousands of people clashed with armed police.
Some protesters were savagely beaten by police in the melee, villagers said.
"They were beating people. Some people were crying, some were on their knees begging for mercy," a resident surnamed Peng from Jinyan village told reporters.
The accusations were denied by an official, surnamed Liu, at the local migration bureau. Liu also denied that anyone died in the clash.