Chinese police clamp down on chemical plant protests in Maoming

BEIJING (REUTERS) - Police in China are briskly dispersing a wave of protests against a chemical plant in the country's south, activists said on Friday, as demonstrators prepared to hold more rallies over the weekend.

The protests began last Sunday in the city of Maoming, where officials plan to build a chemical plant to make paraxylene, a petrochemical used to make plastic bottles and fabrics, but which can be toxic if ingested.

Protests against paraxylene plants are not uncommon in China, but this one is unusual because images of police brutality on Sunday incensed many who saw them online before they were deleted by censors.

On Friday, police halted a march by about 20 demonstrators who had gathered in front of a theatre in the manufacturing city of Shenzhen, one protest organiser said.

"We never got to walk," the organiser, identified only by the surname Liao, told Reuters by telephone. "There were just too few people and too many police."

Government officials this week shut down many of the social media groups through which activists had spread word of the protests, she said, making it tough to drum up support.

Still, organisers hope hundreds of people will flock to a public square in the provincial capital of Guangzhou this weekend, when they plan to hold peaceful walks.

Sympathisers, along with Maoming natives who had moved to other cities, held smaller demonstrations in Guangzhou and Shenzhen this week.

Photographs of Sunday's protest not verified by Reuters showed demonstrators lying in pools of blood and ambulances taking away the injured.

Hundreds of Maoming residents demonstrated outside a government building on Thursday, protesters said.

But early on Friday, the streets appeared quiet, two Maoming residents told Reuters by telephone, although they said paramilitary police stood guard outside schools and workplaces.

Police said on Thursday they had detained 18 people over Sunday's protest, adding they might have accidentally injured several onlookers - the first official acknowledgment that police hurt anyone at all.

There were four police officers among the 15 people injured in that protest, health officials said. Although Maoming officials say there were no deaths, demonstrators dispute the claim, saying several were killed and dozens injured.

An unverified video of Sunday's protest obtained by Reuters showed protesters fleeing through the streets as police chased them wielding batons and firing tear gas guns.

Maoming's government has said the plan to build the plant is only in the initial stages, and officials have promised to take into account residents' views in deciding whether to go ahead.

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