BEIJING (AP) — Thousands of people took to the streets of a southern Chinese town to protest plans to build a chemical plant there, citing health concerns, residents said Tuesday.
The demonstrations, which began Feb. 29 in Dongshan County in southern Fujian province, turned violent on the first day after police in riot gear clashed with the protesters, said a witness who refused to give his name for fear of reprisals.
''It was chaos,'' said a student, describing at least 50 policemen wielding batons and shields who pushed and beat the demonstrators, who threw rocks in return.
He said at least 20 people were arrested, including a friend, who later told him the group was taken to a police station and forced to sign false confessions.
On Monday, the government sent in military police armed with guns to patrol the area, but the protests, though smaller in size, continued Tuesday, said another resident who also refused to give his name because of the sensitivity of the subject.
On Tuesday, local government officials denied that an incident had taken place. However, a junior government official said government leaders had gathered to ''discuss the situation.''
Last May, Tenglong Aromatic PX (Xiamen) Co. Ltd. was forced to halt construction of a $1.4 billion facility to produce the petrochemical paraxylene in the port city of Xiamen after residents there mobilized by sending more than 1 million text messages warning of possible pollution problems.
Several days of protests forced officials there to suspend the project indefinitely.
The demonstrations in Dongshan County started after residents heard that the paraxylene factory would instead be built there, about 60 miles south of Xiamen.
Paraxylene is used in the production of plastics, polyester and film. Short-term exposure to paraxylene can cause eye, nose or throat irritation in humans, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chronic exposure can affect the central nervous system and may cause death.
The Communist government has become more sensitive to pollution complaints after numerous accidents in recent years polluted rivers and disrupted water supplies to major cities.
The suspension of the Xiamen project also coincided with government efforts to slow an investment boom in industries where output exceeds demand.
Witnesses contacted by The Associated Press sent more than two dozen photos and a video showing thousands of people marching down a main street holding up large red banners reading ''We are opposing the PX project which threatens people's health and security'' and ''Rescue Dongshan County.'' Teenagers and elderly people were seen among the protesters.