BEIJING (Reuters) - Three people set themselves on fire in the heart of downtown Beijing on Wednesday, state media said, and city police said they appeared to have come to the capital to voice “personal complaints.”
The trio ignited the blaze in their car at 3 p.m. (2:00 a.m. EST) at the intersection of the city’s main Chang’an thoroughfare and a high-end shopping street, the official Xinhua agency said, quoting a Beijing city spokesman.
A witness saw “some kind of incendiary device” explode when police wrenched open the door of a small silvery-grey car, with what looked like three Chinese flags attached to its roof.
The Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau said in a faxed statement that the passengers were in a car with non-Beijing plates and were stopped by police who thought the car looked odd. It did not describe the incident as self-immolation.
“When they were advancing to examine it, the inside of the car caught fire and it was swiftly extinguished,” said the statement. Two of the passengers were injured and sent to hospital, where they were not in critical danger.
“Based on initial inquiries, the three came to Beijing to voice personal grievances,” said the police statement.
The statement made no suggestion that the passengers were Tibetan or Uighur — two minorities often treated as security risks by authorities.
A man was pulled from the car and his apparently limp body was later seen laid out on the street, the witness said, while other officers pulled a screaming woman from the passenger door of the partially smoldering vehicle.
Police also removed piles of blankets and cans from the back seat of the car, said the witness, who was passing by on a bicycle and stopped to see what a crowd of around two hundred bystanders were looking at.
By 5:30 pm the area had returned to normal.
In 2001, five people, who the government said belonged to the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong, set themselves on fire on Tiananmen Square, the symbolic political heart of China about 1 km (half a mile) to the west of Wednesday’s fire. Falun Gong denied the five were members of the group.
In 2006, a man also set himself on fire there to protest not being paid, media said, but as a magnet for protest the square has very high security.
China’s national parliament begins its annual session next week and many aggrieved citizens try to come to the capital at this time to air complaints about corruption, lost land and jobs and investments gone sour.
Reporting by Emma Graham-Harrison, Chris Buckley, Benjamin Kang Lim, Ian Ransom and Lucy Hornby; Editing by Nick Macfie and Valerie Lee