Three people have been killed and many injured after a car drove over pedestrians and caught fire in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the site of 1989 pro-democracy protests suppressed by the government, police say.
Police said on their official microblog that the car veered off the road on Monday at the north of the square, crossed the barriers and caught fire, injuring “many” tourists and police.
Three people in the car died, they said.
A Reuters news agency witness said he saw fire engines, an ambulance and numerous police cars heading in the direction of the fire, which sent a plume of black smoke into the sky.
“The jeep driver and two occupants have been confirmed dead,” China’s official Xinhua news agency said, adding that “many tourists and police on duty” were injured by the vehicle, which ploughed into a barrier outside the Forbidden City.
Pictures posted on Chinese social media sites showed the blazing shell of the vehicle and a plume of black smoke rising near the portrait of communist founder Mao Zedong hanging on the towering wall of the former imperial palace. There were also police vehicles gathered, and crowds looking on.
Several of the pictures were deleted within minutes, streets leading to the square were blocked off, screens were erected, the AFP news agency reported, adding that two of its reporters were forcibly detained close to the site.
Beijing transport authorities said on a verified social media account that a subway station next to the square had been closed at the request of police.
One 58-year-old Italian tourist said he had been visiting the Forbidden City when officers came in around noon and told everyone to leave.
Tiananmen Square is the symbolic centre of the Chinese state and is generally kept under tight security, with both uniformed and plain-clothes personnel deployed, many of them equipped with fire extinguishers.
News of the incident first trickled online on Monday afternoon in reports from Chinese social media users on the scene.
Details on a motive were not immediately available, but Chinese social media users speculated that it could be intentional.
“Is this the 2013 Tiananmen self-immolation incident?” asked one poster. “There’s still a person inside the car!”
Around 120 Tibetans have set themselves alight since February 2009 in Tibet itself and adjoining regions of China, in protest against what they see as Chinese oppression.