The official press put the toll from last Tuesday's riot at three, far below local reports that as many as 30 people were killed in what would be the worst violence by Chinese security forces since the 1989 Tiananmen square massacre.

Security forces were maintaining a tight cordon around the tense Dongzhou village near Shanwei city in the southern province of Guangdong on Sunday.

Fearful residents said they worried about more arrests, and said police were refusing to give back the bodies of those killed.

"I don't dare to tell you anything," said one resident. "The police are monitoring the phones in our village. They know all the calls coming in and out."

Land dispute

Details remained sketchy about the clash in which hundreds of villagers hurled Molotov cocktails at paramilitary forces, in a long-running dispute centred on land compensation for a coal-fired power plant.

"We didn't expect the police to open fire. They threw tear gas first and then they shot. It was chaos after they opened fire. Many people fled"

School student Chen

Ending a four-day news blackout on Saturday, the state-run Xinhua news agency said hundreds of armed villagers had attacked security forces in a "serious violation of the law".

"It became dark when the chaotic mob began to throw explosives at the police," it said.

"Police were forced to open fire in alarm.
In the chaos, three villagers died, eight were injured, with three of them fatally injured."

The official Guangzhou Daily newspaper on Sunday said that "the commanding officer on the scene mishandled the situation, causing accidental deaths and injuries" and added that the unnamed official had been arrested.

Conflicting reports

Liu Jingmao, deputy head of Shanwei's communication department, refused to provide further details, including the officer's name.

The shooting has been likened to 
the Tiananmen Square massacre

The state media reports contrasted with the villagers' version of events.

One resident, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that 30 people were killed, while The New York Times quoted residents as saying that "as many as 20" had died.

The Xinhua report named three "instigators" and said they had organised an attack by more than 170 villagers armed with "knives, steel spears, sticks, dynamite powder, bottles filled with petroleum and fishing detonators".

Police had been forced to fire tear gas at the protesters and arrested two before being blockaded and opening fire in panic, according to Xinhua.

The report said government departments were investigating the deaths, but added that the "instigators" had been organising armed protests since June, using local anger over the new power plant as an "excuse".

Shooting 'unexpected'

Residents have said the shootings happened during a clash between hundreds of paramilitary People's Armed Police and more than 1000 villagers.

"I was on the site," said school student Chen.

"I've seen relatives of the people who were killed kneeling in front of the police asking them to return the bodies" 

Villager Wei

"The villagers just stood there quietly, they didn't throw anything at police.

"We didn't expect the police to open fire. They threw tear gas first and then they shot. It was chaos after they opened fire. Many people fled.

"I walked slowly away among them, because I thought it was a safer way to elude the bullets."

Struggle for bodies

Since the bloody clash, villagers had been pleading in vain for the return of their loved ones' bodies for burial, according to witnesses.

"I've seen relatives of the people who were killed kneeling in front of the police asking them to return the bodies," said a villager surnamed Wei.

"But the police have refused to hand over the bodies. They've taken them away and we don't know were they are at the moment," she said.

Chen, the student, said: "Many old people who lost their sons or grandsons have been begging in front of the police there. I saw some policeman beat a woman there so badly that even I broke down in tears. Can you save us?"

The coal-fired power plant, sponsored by a company run by the provincial government, would also prevent villagers from using a nearby lake for fishing.