China village chief held over land deal clash

SHANGHAI (AFP) - Chinese authorities have arrested a village chief and eight other people over clashes surrounding a land deal that provoked residents' fury, as officials sought to end a stand-off over the dispute on Sunday.

Officials sent in police to clear road blocks in Shangpu, in the southern province of Guangdong, early Sunday, sparking fresh violence in which residents said 30 to 40 villagers had been hurt.

But local authorities also said the land transfer to a local businessman which triggered the confrontation had been cancelled.

Social unrest is anathema to China's leaders, who are meeting at the annual parliament session in Beijing, and the situation recalls events at another village in Guangdong, Wukan, which made worldwide headlines in late 2011.

On Feb 22, residents of Shangpu fought with scores of attackers sent by Mr Li Baoyu, the village head and communist party chief, after they protested against the land transaction, and blockades went up around the village for more than two weeks.

But in a partial victory for the villagers, authorities said they had arrested nine people, including Mr Li, over the attack and were pursuing another 21, among them the businessman behind the land deal.

A local court had nullified the land transfer while two other officials had been removed over the incident, a spokesman for Jiexi county which administers Shangpu said on Sunday, confirming a government statement.

But villagers said they remained sceptical despite the government reassurances.

Police surrounded the village on Sunday morning, temporarily cutting off the power supply and communications, as they sought to remove wrecked vehicles and roadblocks set up by residents, villagers told AFP.

"It's an extremely serious situation. They injured many people," a villager told AFP.

"The government uses illegal methods to cheat people. How can we believe them?" he added, referring to the government claim it had scrapped the land deal.

Jiexi county spokesman Lin Weizhe said authorities were seeking to clear the village road so that traffic could resume, but declined further comment.

In Wukan in late 2011, a protest by residents against a land grab by local officials accused of corruption escalated after one of their leaders died in police custody.

Villagers barricaded roads and faced off against security forces for 10 days, until authorities backed down and promised them rare concessions.

Residents were later allowed to hold open village elections - a first in Wukan.

Shangpu residents previously told AFP, the first Western media organisation to enter after the stand-off began, that they wanted their land returned, those involved in the attack arrested, and democratic polls for the village head.