BEIJING - The commander of Chinese forces that shot protesters opposed to the construction of a power plant has been detained, as authorities admitted that at least three people had been killed.
The shootings, in southern China's Guangdong Province last Tuesday, were confirmed by state media yesterday.
According to Amnesty International, it is the first time Chinese police have fired on protestors since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 4 June 1989.
Villagers in Dongzhoukeng, near the coastal city of Shanwei, said hundreds of camouflage-clad members of the People's Armed Police confronted the protestors, before using automatic weapons to fire on them at around 8pm on Tuesday.
The villagers claimed the death toll was much higher than reported and said that at least 50 people were missing.
The incident is the latest in a series of increasingly bloody clashes between people living in rural areas and the authorities.
Official government figures say that 3.76m people took part in at least 74,000 protests in 2004, but many more go unrecorded.
Rising anger over land being forcibly purchased, as well as the environmental damage caused by the location of heavy industry in the countryside, has prompted rural residents to resort to direct action in an effort to protect their livelihoods.
Dongzhoukeng has been sealed off from the outside world since Tuesday night, with police preventing media and strangers from entering the village.
The villagers have been protesting over the building of a coal-fired power plant nearby since June, citing concerns over pollution, inadequate compensation for their confiscated farmland and the loss of fishing grounds.
Matters came to a head at the beginning of last week, when around 1,000 protestors blockaded a wind power plant in the neighbouring village of Shigongzhai in an effort to pressure the local government into increasing the compensation on offer for the purchase of their land.
According to the official news agency Xinhua, the blockade caused the plant to cease operations for seven hours.
On Tuesday, police moved in to arrest three leaders of the protests, named as Huang Xijun, Huang Xirang and Lin Hanru.
When the protestors tried to rescue them, the shooting started.
"In the onslaught, over 170 armed villagers used knives, steel spears, sticks, dynamite powder, bottles filled with petroleum and fishing detonators," claimed Xinhua.
"It became dark when the chaotic mob began to throw explosives at the police. Police were forced to open fire in alarm.
"In the chaos, three villagers died and eight were injured."
But the villagers disputed the claims that they used explosives, saying they were only firecrackers.
With police reported to be carrying out house-to-house searches as they hunted the protestors, the residents of Dongzhoukeng were in a state of shock.
"The government did not give us proper compensation for using our land to build the plants. Now, they come and shoot us" said one local woman.
Guangdong has become the epicentre of protests by rural residents.
With thousands of factories churning out goods for much of the world, land prices have rocketed in the province in the last two decades, especially in the coastal regions, as more and more enterprises set up there.
But Guangdong's distance from Beijing has encouraged a climate where corrupt local officials sell communally-owned land to developers and keep most of the profits for themselves.
In October, allegations of corruption in a land development in the village of Taishi led to the beating of a local activist by hired thugs, while in July thousands of farmers surrounded a local police station near Foshan City in Guangdong demanding the release of villagers who had been arrested for protesting a government-backed land grab.
Until last week's shootings in Dongzhoukeng, however, the most serious incident this year took place in April in the eastern province of Zhejiang.
Thousands of protestors fought pitched battles with police in Huaxi village, in an attempt to close down chemical plants they claimed had contaminated the area's water supplies and affected local people's health.
Beijing is acutely aware of the need to address the grievances of the 700 million people who live in rural China.
Last month, it announced that closing the gap between the rich and poor was one of the prime objectives of the next Five Year Plan.