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The BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes in Beijing
"Such an extreme demonstration would be a dramatic change for the outlawed group"
 real 28k

Tuesday, 23 January, 2001, 22:56 GMT
Tiananmen Square security operation
Smoke rising on Tiananmen Square
Smoke rose from the scene of the incident
A massive security operation has been launched in Beijing, after reports that five people - alleged to be members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement - tried to commit suicide.

Hundreds of police have sealed off Tiananmen Square, where according to Chinese state media members of the movement had tried to set themselves on fire.

police on Tiananmen Square
Hundreds of police sealed off the square

The official Xinhua news agency said one woman died after four women and one man doused themselves in petrol and set themselves alight.

While the Chinese government insists they were Falun Gong members, a spokesperson for the sect strongly denied they were connected to them.

The attempted suicides occurred on the eve of the Chinese New Year, when Falun Gong protests had been expected.

Last year, thousands of Falun Gong practitioners descended on Tiananmen Square.

China outlawed the Falun Gong movement, which teaches meditation and exercise, in July 1999 after branding it an "evil cult".

'Smear campaign'

On Tuesday, Xinhua reported that: "Misled by the heresy of Li Hongzhi, a ringleader of the evil Falun Gong cult, five Falun Gong addicts tried to commit suicide by burning themselves on Tiananmen Square."

Crackdown
450 followers jailed
600 plus sent to mental hospitals
10,000 sent to labour camps
50,000 in detention centres
Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, Hong Kong
The four injured were taken to hospital by police, the news agency added.

A Falun Gong spokeswoman in Hong Kong said the alleged incident might be part of a smear campaign by Beijing.

"Taking life is a sin. We don't even harm mosquitoes. Why should we harm ourselves?" she added.

Crackdown

Falun Gong members have held regular demonstrations in Tiananmen Square over the last 18 months to protest against the government ban.

Falun Gong members
An "evil cult" say the authorities
Thousands of people have been arrested and organisers have received lengthy jail terms.

The movement also says more than 100 people have been beaten to death in custody - an allegation denied by the authorities.

China's handling of the protests is under extra scrutiny this year with Beijing hoping to be chosen to host the 2008 Olympics.

The International Olympic Committee is due in Beijing in February to assess the city's bid ahead of its decision in July.

Falun Gong, which insists it has no political motives, says its teachings promote health and good citizenship.

But Beijing blames the group for the deaths of hundreds of followers by advising them not to seek medical treatment when ill.

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See also:

01 Jan 01 | Asia-Pacific
Police break up Falun Gong demo
13 Dec 00 | Asia-Pacific
Falun Gong member dies after beating
21 Nov 00 | Asia-Pacific
UN-China rift on human rights
14 Nov 00 | Asia-Pacific
Chinese 'cult busters' set up
27 Oct 00 | Asia-Pacific
New Falun Gong protest broken up
22 Jul 99 | Asia-Pacific
The complex Web of Falun Gong
26 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
Falun Gong: Living in fear
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