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Police fire at rioters in China

Up to 20 villagers are reported killed

DONGZHOU, China -- Paramilitary police and antiriot units here have opened fire with pistols and automatic rifles for the past two nights on rioting farmers and fishermen who have attacked them with gasoline bombs and explosive charges, according to residents of this small coastal village.

The sustained volleys of gunfire, unprecedented in a wave of peasant uprisings over the past two years in China, have killed between 10 and 20 villagers and injured more, residents said. The count was uncertain, they said, because a number of villagers have disappeared and it is not known for sure whether they were killed, wounded, or driven into hiding.

The tough response by black-clad riot troops and People's Armed Police in camouflage fatigues deviated sharply from previous government tactics against the spreading unrest in Chinese villages and industrial suburbs. As far as is known, previous riots have all been put down with heavy use of truncheons and tear gas, but without firearms.

This time, according to a villager who heard and saw what happened, police responded to the launching of explosives by firing ''very rapid bursts of gunfire" over a period of several hours Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Some villagers reported seeing People's Armed Police carrying AK-47 assault rifles, one of the Chinese military's standard-issue weapons. There were no reports of violence last night.

The villagers who rose up against land confiscations in Dongzhou, a community of 10,000 residents 14 miles southeast of Shanwei city, in Guangdong province near Hong Kong, also opened a new chapter -- the use of the homemade bottle bombs and explosive charges that local fishermen normally use to stun fish in the adjacent South China Sea. In previous riots, attacks against police were limited to pelting them with stones and bricks or setting fire to official vehicles.

The Communist Party and city administration of Shanwei, which has jurisdiction over Dongzhou, held all-day meetings yesterday on the violence, officials said. The city spokesman, however, refused to discuss what happened in the village and declined to give his name. He said only that local authorities were taking the crisis seriously.

There likewise was no public response from the Guangdong provincial Communist Party and government, which have been hit by several long-running and violent confrontations over land confiscations during the past year. As was the case in most previous unrest, the government-censored press and television has not reported on the violence in Dongzhou.

The long-simmering conflict in Dongzhou arose over disputed confiscations and what farmers here said were inadequate compensation payments. Authorities exercising the equivalent of eminent domain seized farmers' fields to build a wind-driven electric generating plant on a hillside overlooking the village. The plant would be part of a $700 million electricity development project to supply the growing power needs of Shanwei and surrounding towns and villages.

Villagers, contacted by telephone, said that the compensation was inadequate and the power plant would spoil fishing in Baisha Lake, a tidal inlet just below the hill on which villagers rely for seafood.

The confrontation was typical of the tension across China between economic development, which runs about 9 percent a year, and farmers' desire to retain the land that they regard as security for their families.

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