The iconic Tiananmen Square in the centre of Beijing was hurriedly evacuated on Monday after a jeep ploughed into a crowd of tourists, burst into flames, killing five people including all three passengers, state media said.
At least 38 tourists and police officers were injured in the incident that led to the shutting down of the nearest subway station with authorities closing access to the adjoining Forbidden City palace – once the sprawling residence of Chinese rulers -- in front of which the jeep burst into flames.
The dead include three people in the jeep, a woman tourist from Philippines and a man from south China's Guangdong Province.
The state media was sketchy with the details and till late evening hadn’t given any explanation about the incident or the sequence of events.
Policemen at the scene of crime brushed aside questions.
There was no explanation about how the jeep managed to get on to the other side of a barricaded section of a pedestrian street between the Square and the Forbidden City.
“A jeep crashed into a crowd of people and caught fire in front of the Tian'anmen rostrum in downtown Beijing at noon on Monday, killing five people and injuring another 38, police said.
The dead include three people in the jeep, a Philippine female tourist and a male tourist from south China's Guangdong Province, according to the police,” state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
It added that the 38 injured include two female and one male tourist from the Philippines as well as a male tourist from Japan.
The Square, the biggest one in the world, and the adjoining Forbidden City are always kept under tight security because of its closeness to China’s top political institutions including the Great Hall of the People.
The Tiananmen Square was where pro-democracy supporters protested in 1989 but were crushed in a military crackdown.
Incidents have occurred in recent years at the Tiananmen as well but have been kept under wraps.
In 2011, a self-immolation happened at the site but wasn’t reported by the state media.
In 2009, three people set themselves on fire in a car at near the Square over what the authorities called personal grievances.
And, in 2000, members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement were arrested for protesting there.
The news of Monday’s incident first broke on China’s social networking platform Weibo with witnesses uploading pictures of the burning car with Mao Zedong’s massive portrait hanging on the top of the Forbidden City’s main entrance in the background.
The photos were swiftly shared and the social media was soon buzzing with news of the car crash.
A witness told the Reuters news agency that he saw “fire engines, an ambulance and numerous police cars heading in the direction of the fire, which sent a plume of black smoke into the sky.”
The main road through the Square, Changan Avenue, was closed for a while to traffic. Tourists on foot were stopped from entering the area by about 300-400 metres on each side of the site.
Authorities had almost immediately shut down the nearest subway station.
By about 3 pm, police and emergency services had removed the burnt car and had cleared the area. The subway station had been reopened and tourists were also being allowed on the pedestrian path between the Square and the City.