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3 in China pulled from burning car near Tiananmen Square

Beijing downplays the idea that they were staging a political protest. Citizens quickly snap cellphone photos and speculate that the three may be Uighurs.

February 26, 2009|Barbara Demick

BEIJING — Three people were pulled out of a burning car Wednesday after they apparently set themselves on fire at a crowded intersection near Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

Chinese authorities tried to downplay the possibility that it was a political protest and said the occupants had come to the capital to "voice personal grievance."

The car, a silver hatchback with three Chinese flags on the roof, caught the attention of police after it stopped at the foot of the Wangfujing pedestrian mall just before 3 p.m.

"When they were advancing to examine it, the inside of the car caught fire, and it was quickly extinguished," police said in a statement.

Thousands of people poured into the streets to watch, and many snapped photos with their cellphones, a relatively new phenomenon at Chinese public disturbances that has in effect forced authorities to report incidents they might otherwise cover up.

Some witnesses were quoted on blogs as saying that the occupants of the car might have been Uighurs, a Muslim minority, because a woman inside wore a face covering and, according to some reports, the license plates were from Xinjiang province, a Uighur area in China's far west.

"Are they anti-Chinese?" "Are they Falun Gong practitioners?" people asked one another online, speculating about the government-banned spiritual movement believed to be linked to an incident in 2001 in which people set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square.

The Chinese national parliament begins its annual session next week, signaling the high season in Beijing for political protests. Each year, thousands of people known as petitioners come to the capital, playing a game of cat-and-mouse to publicize their grievances before they are arrested.

This June also will be the 20th anniversary of the massive student protests in Tiananmen Square.

After the incident Wednesday, two passengers of the car were hospitalized: a 59-year-old man with injuries to his throat, and a 58-year-old woman who might need to have fingers amputated, according to the official New China News Agency.

The third person, apparently uninjured, was also detained.

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barbara.demick@latimes.com

Nicole Liu and Eliot Gao of The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.

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