Vietnam says will deal with 'extremists' behind protest clashes

HANOI (Reuters) - Vietnam’s government vowed on Tuesday to punish “extremists” it said had instigated rare clashes with police at the weekend when a nationwide protest over new economic zones for foreigners spiraled into chaos in one central province.

The Ministry of Public Security is investigating what led to protesters hurling bricks and Molotov cocktails at police and damaging some government buildings in Binh Thuan province, where anti-Chinese sentiment boiled over.

The protests, by thousands of people in several cities, were fueled by concerns that a draft law to develop economic zones offering land leases of up to 99 years would be dominated by investors from China, a neighbor with which Vietnam has a rocky history.

Police arrested 100 people on Monday night after detaining 102 people a day earlier, although it was unclear how many had since been released.

In its evening news bulletin on Tuesday, broadcaster VTV said 80 people were being held.

Vietnamese officials have blamed “reactionary groups” for orchestrating the violence. The police-run Ministry of Public Security said “extremists” had injured dozens of policemen, damaged government offices and torched police vehicles.

Those who had incited people to vandalize and cause disorder would be dealt with strictly, the government said in a statement.

State media reported on Tuesday that tensions in Binh Thuan province had subsided.

“We should not let bad people take advantage of us,” Ho Trung Phuoc, head of the provincial propaganda department, was quoted as saying.

“And if we truly love our country, we should love it by protecting social order in our hometown, protecting our peaceful life, our friendly environment and somehow maintain a beautiful image of Vietnam,” he added.

Though the authorities often tolerate protests, rallies against China’s perceived aggression and infringements upon Vietnamese sovereignty are a challenge for the government, which is keen to avoid angering a neighbor with growing military, political and economic clout.

In the capital Hanoi on Sunday, police detained more than a dozen protesters during a march where some held anti-Chinese banners, including one that said: “No leasing land to China even for one day”.

The economic zone plan did not single out China, but the prospect of Chinese firms boosting their presence has created unease in Vietnam, which in recent years has received tens of billions of dollars of investment from South Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese and Singaporean firms, among others.

The National Assembly was due to pass the legislation for the economic zones later this week but decided to delay the vote until its next meeting in October.

Reporting by Hanoi Newsroom; Editing by Martin Petty and Darren Schuettler