China says situation calm after rural protest

BEIJING, March 14 (Reuters) - Chinese authorities have contained what they termed a "mass incident" in central China, the official Xinhua news agency said, after thousands of people took to the streets to protest a rise in bus fares.

A government official had told Reuters earlier in the week that some 20,000 people clashed with about 1,000 police armed with guns and electric cattle prods. The official said that nine police cars had been burned.

Xinhua said late on Tuesday that the situation had returned to normal after police had detained some people.

It said some villagers in the town of Zhushan, outside Yongzhou in Hunan province, destroyed buses in the protest.

"The Hunan Provincial government and the city government of Yongzhou have sent officials to help settle the incident," Xinhua said.

The bus company has stopped operating "due to many management problems" and the government has arranged extra buses "to ensure smooth traffic and safety of local residents and students", it added.

A widening gap between rich and poor, corruption and official abuses of power have fuelled a growing number of demonstrations and riots around China, often sparked by seemingly minor issues.

The government has said the number of "mass incidents" in the country -- a term that includes protests, petitions and demonstrations -- was about 23,000 last year.

Efforts to reduce inequality and sources of discontent have been a theme of a government campaign to improve the livelihoods of its 750 million farmers.