BEIJING – An SUV plowed into a crowd in Beijing’s iconic Tiananmen Square on Monday and then crashed and burst into flames, killing two pedestrians and the three occupants of the vehicle and injuring 38 others, police and state media said.
Police flooded the historic square, which is perhaps the country’s most sensitive and closely guarded public venue – as well as a major destination for domestic and foreign tourists. It was the scene of a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 1989.
The cause or possible motive for the crash remained unclear.
The Los Angeles Times reported there were some suggestions that police were looking at suspects from the Uighur community, Muslims from the northwest of China.
One foreign tourist interviewed by the Reuters news agency, who declined to give her name, reported hearing an explosion before seeing the smoke. Images posted on social media sites showed the vehicle engulfed in flames, and a thick plume of black smoke rising into the air.
Hundreds of posts about the incident surfaced on social media sites in China, but were quickly deleted by censors, according to FreeWeibo.com, a website that tracks such activity.
Among the deleted posts were some that showed images of the burning vehicle and others that suggested the crash might have been a case of self-immolation, a widely used form of protest here and one used recently by Tibetan monks.
Internet searches for “Tiananmen car accident” also were blocked. China’s state-owned news agency Xinhua carried a brief report of the crash, but reports and microblog posts by other Chinese media outlets were deleted. The incident was not mentioned on state television’s Chinese-language evening news.
The SUV burst through the security barriers lining the square before slamming into one of the stone bridges leading to the former imperial palace known as the Forbidden City, Beijing police said on their official microblog. The vehicle ignited not far from an imposing portrait of Mao Zedong, communist China’s founding father, which hangs from the ancient red-painted Tiananmen Gate.
One of the few Chinese newspapers attempting to report on the incident, the liberal Southern Metropolis Daily, interviewed a 23-year-old Filipino student who was hospitalized along with her father and sister. She said she did not know the condition of her mother, who was with them.
The four were coming out of the Forbidden City when the car rushed toward them at high speed, said the student, who was identified by her first name, Francesca. “I heard the horn of the car, but it was too late before I realized it,” she told the newspaper, according to its Weibo blog account. “My mind went blank. When I came to, all of us were lying on the ground.”
The mausoleum that houses Mao’s embalmed body lies in the southern half of the square, while the Great Hall of the People, China’s parliament, sits on its western side.