updated 12/13/2005 12:36:11 PM ET 2005-12-13T17:36:11

With anguished sobs and incense offerings, family and friends mourned the dead Monday in a southern Chinese village where police shot and killed protesters in a land dispute with the local government.

The violence Dec. 6 in Dongzhou, northeast of Hong Kong, was the deadliest in a series of confrontations throughout China between police and villagers angry at corruption and land seizures.

Witnesses said police fired rounds for more than 12 hours as thousands demonstrated over inadequate compensation for land used to build a coal-fired power plant.

In an apparent effort to diffuse local anger over the incident, the Chinese government has detained the commander of forces that shot and killed people. The government put the death toll at three, while villagers said as many as 20 were killed.

Officials contacted by phone refused to identify the commander. But the Hong Kong newspaper Ta Kung Pao, which has close ties to the Beijing government, gave his surname as Wu and said he was deputy police chief of the nearby city of Shanwei.

The detained commander's "wrong actions" were to blame for the deaths, said a statement issued Sunday by the government of Guangdong province, where Dongzhou is located. It did not say what those actions were.

On Monday, police in black uniforms continued to guard this coastal village, stopping vehicles entering and leaving the community, frisking visitors and checking their vehicles.

One family burned paper money and incense sticks — a traditional ritual for the dead — in the street in front of their home, some members sobbing loudly. Neighbors said they were the family of a man in his 20s who was killed in the shootings.

A woman, said to be the dead man's wife, lay on the ground looking exhausted. An elderly woman slumped between two people who supported her. Family members tied a strip of white cloth around their heads, a gesture of mourning, as neighbors left condolence money in a box on the ground.

Another villager who refused to give his name said that his neighbor had been killed and officials refused to return the body to the dead man's family unless they agreed to cremate him immediately. The family was offered $5,000 in compensation if they accepted the terms, the man said.

Calls for calm
The village was filled with banners promoting social order. "Troublemakers will not win the hearts of the people," said one. Vehicles with loudspeakers also blared warnings into the streets, telling people: "Don't make trouble, don't spread gossip" and "Righteousness suppresses evil tendencies."

Villagers earlier had hung up banners appealing to the Chinese government to intervene in the dispute, according to residents. They said those banners were torn down the day of the shootings and burned by police.

Since then, authorities also have sought to enforce order with a show of force with hundreds of police in riot gear patrolling the town.

An Associated Press reporter was detained for about two hours Sunday while leaving Dongzhou. The reporter was stopped at a checkpoint and taken to the offices of the Shanwei (local) government. Her belongings were examined, including her notebook, and she was questioned about where she had been and who she had interviewed. Officials repeatedly told her not to return to the village "for your own safety."

The government earlier defended the shootings, saying police opened fire after protesters armed with knives, spears and dynamite attacked the power plant before turning on authorities.

Villagers said the dispute had been brewing for more than a year.

By the government's count, China had more than 70,000 cases of rural unrest last year. The unrest has alarmed communist leaders, who are promising to spend more to raise living standards in the poor countryside, home to about 800 million people.

President Hu Jintao's government has made a priority of spreading prosperity to areas left behind by China's 25-year economic boom. But in many areas, families still live on the equivalent of a few hundred dollars a year.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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