BEIJING - Residents in a city in southwest China took to the streets for a third day on Tuesday, demanding the government scrap plans for a copper alloy project they fear will poison them, in the latest unrest spurred by environmental concerns.
The show of defiance in Shifang in Sichuan province has persisted despite authorities saying they have temporarily halted work on the plant and threatening to punish organisers of the protests if they do not give themselves up.
Environmental worries have stoked calls for expanded rights for citizens and greater consultation in the tightly controlled one-party state where leaders are obsessed with maintaining stability while fostering economic growth.
"We have so many people in Shifang, we aren't afraid of them," an 18-year-old saleswoman, who declined to be named, told Reuters by telephone from Shifang. "The Shifang people will definitely not surrender.
"We Shifang people are fundamentally non-violent, we just don't want them to build the plant in Shifang. Is that so hard?"
The youth estimated that there were about 10,000 people on the streets, most of them students, demonstrating against the building of the molybdenum-copper alloy factory by Shanghai-listed Sichuan Hongda.
She accused the police of beating the protesters up on Monday night. Police were not immediately available for comment.
Another resident who gave her family name as Guo said there were still protests happening, and estimated about 1,000 were taking part. "The government has said they will stop the plant from opening, but many people have not seen this notice and those who have do not believe it," she told Reuters.
Reuters could not independently verify the size of the protest and the government has not provided any figures.
Pictures sent to Reuters on Tuesday showed young people carrying red banners reading "Get rid of the Hong da molybdenum plant, return beautiful new Shifang to me". A second picture showed riot police surrounding a small group of protestors outside a post office.
Monday's protest turned violent after tens of thousands of residents stormed the city government headquarters, smashed police cars and clashed with thousands of anti-riot police, according to Hong Kong media.
At least 13 people were injured after police used tear gas to disperse the crowds, the city government said. It said there were no deaths, but Hong Kong's Ming Pao newspaper and a resident reported that one high school student had died.
On its official microblog, the Shifang government on Tuesday called on locals who have used the Internet, text messages and other means of "incitement" to "stop their illegal activities".
The government said it will be lenient toward people who surrender within three days for their roles in organising the protest, but others would be "severely punished".
The Shifang government also said it will temporarily suspend the building of the factory.
Sichuan Hongda, one of China's biggest zinc and lead producers, issued a statement on Tuesday acknowledging the government's announcement of the temporary suspension. The firm maintained however that it was a government-approved project.
In an earlier statement, Shifang's government blamed "people with ulterior motives" for mobilising students to stage the protests on July 1, the birthday of the Chinese Communist Party.
The government blamed the banned spiritual movement, Falun Gong, and the Dalai separatist group, which China says is led by the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader for fomenting the protest.