BEIJING — Tanks and troops took up combat positions along Beijing's main avenue this evening amid unconfirmed accounts of clashes between army units and suspicion that China's leaders might fear a coup attempt, Western diplomats said.
About 30 tanks and 15 truckloads of soldiers took up fighting positions facing east along the Avenue of Eternal Peace at the major Jianguomenwai intersection, and explosions and small-arms fire were heard later, witnesses said.
One Western diplomat said there were unconfirmed accounts of troops fighting troops on the city outskirts.
Asked about the reports, another Western diplomat said, "It's more than that. There is solid evidence." He spoke on condition he not be identified and he refused to elaborate.
Residents near the city train station reported seeing large numbers of trains arriving overnight, possibly bringing in troop reinforcements.
More than 70 tanks and armored troop carriers were seen moving in the early hours toward Tian An Men Square, where a day earlier troops firing at random killed hundreds of people and ended weeks of occupation by thousands of pro-democracy students.
"This is too much force to control civilians. It is more suitable for fighting another army," said a foreign diplomat, referring to the troops along the Avenue of Eternal Peace.
"Perhaps the old leaders are worried about an attack by other military units," said a second diplomat.
Soldiers terrorized the tense and chaotic capital today with random shooting of unarmed civilians.
Much of the shooting was in the city center near Tian An Men Square. Chinese witnesses said at least three people were shot to death near the square, including a man machine-gunned from his chin to his stomach. The wounded included a girl shot in the chest when troops charged up a narrow residential street.
Residents in Beijing spent the day preparing for food shortages in the increasingly chaotic city, with lines forming for milk, oil, soy sauce and other staples. Army patrols, shooting and a lack of public transportation added to the tense atmosphere.
Blockades of buses and burning vehicles made major streets impassable, and many Beijing residents stayed home from work out of fear of the roaming bands of trigger-happy soldiers.
"What are we going to do, go to work and get shot?" asked an office clerk.