BEIJING – Three people were killed when an SUV crashed into a crowd in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on Monday and burst into flames, police said, as a tower of smoke billowed near a giant portrait of former Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong.
Immediately after the incident a security operation went into effect on the vast square, the site of the Forbidden City and where pro-democracy protests in 1989 were brutally crushed by the authorities.
Pictures posted on Chinese social media sites showed the blazing shell of the SUV and a plume of black smoke rising close to the portrait of Mao on the towering wall of the former Imperial Palace.
Several police vehicles were parked nearby, and crowds of people gathered to watch.
Several of the pictures on the social media sites were deleted within minutes, streets leading to the square were blocked off, screens were erected and two AFP reporters were forcibly detained close to the site, with images on their digital equipment erased.
“A Jeep crashed into the guardrail on Jinshui Bridge, then caught fire,” the Beijing police said in a statement on their verified social media account. The Jinshui Bridge passes over the moat around the Forbidden City.
“It is confirmed that the Jeep driver and the two other people in the car are dead,” the statement said, adding the fire had been put out.
The official Xinhua News Agency said 11 people — tourists and police officers — were injured and had been taken to nearby hospitals for treatment.
A subway station next to the square was closed at the request of police, Beijing transport authorities said via social media.
A 58-year-old Italian tourist said he had been visiting the Forbidden City when officers came in around noon and told everyone to leave.
Tiananmen Square is the symbolic center of the Chinese state and is generally kept under tight security, with both uniformed and plainclothes personnel deployed, many of them equipped with fire extinguishers.
Details on a motive were not immediately available, but social media users speculated that it could have been intentional.
“Is this the 2013 Tiananmen self-immolation incident?” asked one poster. “There’s still a person inside the car!”
Another poster asked: “Could it be a terrorist attack?”
Around 120 Tibetans have set themselves alight since February 2009 in Tibet itself and adjoining regions of China, in protest against what they see as oppression by Beijing. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said she did not know “the specifics” when asked whether there was any evidence of a terrorist attack, or any foreign casualties.
News of the incident first trickled online Monday afternoon in reports from Chinese social media users on the scene.
Pictures they posted showed the flaming wreck surrounded by several police and emergency vehicles, directly in front of the sign on the Tiananmen Gate reading: “May the great unity of the world’s people last for 10,000 years.”
Soon afterward police erected high curtainlike barricades directly in front of the Mao portrait, blocking passers-by from viewing the scene. The main road in front of the Forbidden City was later re-opened to vehicles but no pedestrians were allowed near the scene of the incident.