Three people were killed last night when a 4WD vehicle crashed into a crowd in Beijing's Tiananmen Square and burst into flames, police say, as a tower of smoke billowed near a giant portrait of Mao Zedong.
Immediately after the incident, a security operation went into effect on the vast square, the site of the Forbidden City 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 4WD and a plume of black smoke rising close to the portrait of communist China's founder hanging on the towering wall of the former imperial palace.
There were also police vehicles gathered, and crowds looking on.
Several of the pictures 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 deleted from their digital equipment.
"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.
"On its way, it injured many tourists and police officers. Police are currently doing their job by rescuing people on the spot, and the fire has been extinguished," it added.
Victims were sent to nearby hospitals for treatment, it said.
Beijing transport authorities said via social media that a subway station next to the square had been closed at the request of police.
One 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 centre of the Chinese state and is generally kept under tight security, with both uniformed and plain-clothes personnel deployed, many of them equipped with fire extinguishers.
Details on a motive were not immediately available, but Chinese social media users speculated that it could have been intentional.
"Is this the 2013 Tiananmen self-immolation incident?" asked one poster.
Another poster asked: "Could it be a terrorist attack?"
News of the incident first trickled online yesterday in reports from social media users on the scene.