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China school killer erupted after lease row

NANZHENG, China (Reuters) - A Chinese man who hacked to death seven young children and two adults in the latest in a series of deadly assaults on schools lashed out after an argument over a kindergarten lease, neighbors and state media said.

The succession of bloody assaults on schools has prompted officials to demand a show of force to deter such attacks, which have angered the Chinese public and stoked criticism of the government. State media reported on Thursday that some schools were being guarded by police wielding submachine guns.

Triggers for the attacks have included pent-up grievances over lost jobs, business failures, broken relationships, and a new home that officials had ordered torn down.

Villagers in northwest China’s Shaanxi province watched on Wednesday as an argument erupted between the attacker, Wu Huanming, 48, and Wu Hongying, a 50-year-old woman who ran the kindergarten where the attack occurred.

Wu Huanming, the owner of the two-storey building with a walled, concrete courtyard, wanted the kindergarten to vacate the property when the lease ran out in April, Xinhua news agency said. Wu Hongying wanted to keep the school running until the summer.

In rural China, villagers often have the same surname, but may not be closely related.

Wu Huanming ran back into his home to grab a cleaver and onlookers were too afraid to stop him, said one villager.

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“I saw him holding a cleaver up in his right hand. I ran out, there was shouting everywhere,” Li Yufen, a resident of rural Nanzheng county, told Reuters.

“Then a few women came out, but we were not enough, so I went back into the house. The killer walked straight past me. He glanced at me but walked on and I closed the door and stayed inside.”

Wu Huanming hacked five boys and two girls to death with the cleaver, and also killed Wu Hongying and her 80-year-old mother. He returned home and committed suicide, Xinhua news agency said.

The attacker showed signs of mental disturbance, said one of his relatives. “He’s been ill, he has been talking nonsense, not making sense, like he was unbalanced,” said the relative, 58-year-old Wu Huangcheng.

This was the sixth attack on schoolchildren in China since March -- a succession of attacks that had already prompted calls for more security at schools and worries about the social malaise that some see underneath China’s rapid economic growth.

Coming soon after the government vowed to protect schools, the latest attack was a blow for the ruling Communist Party, which has long made a tough stance on law and order a part of its claim to authority.

China’s Ministry of Public Security vowed urgent protection at schools and a “strike hard” campaign against threats.

In Changsha, capital of Hunan province in southern China, police have begun guarding schools and kindergartens with submachine guns, a frightening sight for some children, local media reported.

Writing by Lucy Hornby and Chris Buckley; Editing by Ken Wills and Nick Macfie