updated 11/1/2004 2:56:36 PM ET 2004-11-01T19:56:36

Violent clashes in a village in central China killed seven people and injured 42, the government said Monday, and residents said police imposed martial law on the area after the fighting between hundreds of rioters that pitted Muslim Chinese against non-Muslims.

The unrest began Wednesday after a traffic accident and lasted through Sunday, the government said in its first official report on the violence. Everything “is now under control,” it said in the statement, run on the state news agency Xinhua.

Residents said martial law was imposed on the area in Zhongmou County near the city of Zhengzhou in Henan province. Eighteen people have been arrested, Xinhua said.

Some 400 to 500 rioters from the Han ethnic majority and the Hui Muslims clashed in the town of Langchenggang, burning several houses, residents said.

The Hui are Chinese whose ancestors converted to Islam. Even so, they are considered an ethnic group by the Chinese government -- one of 56 nationalities officially recognized by Beijing.

Afraid to go out
On Monday, thousands of police lined the road into the town. They stopped cars at checkpoints outside town, but it wasn’t clear whether any were turned away. Foreign reporters who visited the area were detained. Government minivans with loudspeakers strapped to their roofs drove through the town broadcasting appeals for calm.

“I still dare not leave the house,” said one man, who would give only his surname, Li, and who said he lived a half mile from the scene of the fighting. “To the west and east are Hui villages. So people are afraid to go outside.”

“A lot of people were carrying clubs to fight. They set fire to several houses,” a Langchenggang resident with the surname Liu said by telephone. “Right now, there are lots of police. The local government is allowing residents to move around but everyone is afraid of going out.”

Residents could not confirm a report by The New York Times that as many as 148 people were killed in the fighting.

The government statement did not give details on the traffic accident that sparked the fighting.

The Times said it broke out after a Han girl was struck and killed Friday by a Hui taxi driver. One resident, an accountant, said it began after three Hui men in a car beat up a 17-year-old Han boy who blocked the street.

That confrontation escalated until a group of 400-500 Hui came from a nearby town and large-scale clashes occurred, said the accountant.

Differing versions
A spokesman for the county government gave a different version, saying the violence began after a collision Wednesday between two farm vehicles, one driven by a Han and the other by a Hui.

The two men summoned help from relatives and fighting broke out, said the spokesman, Liang Songzhou. He said the violence spread Thursday and Friday. In addition to the one confirmed death, he said there might have been an additional two deaths.

“This has nothing to do with ethnicity,” insisted Liang, deputy directory of the county Propaganda Office.

County and provincial officials contacted by phone refused to release any information, and several residents said local officials had told them not to give information to reporters.

On Monday, a reporter who visited the town saw residents sitting outside shabby brick houses beside piles of drying corn.

Shattered glass was scattered across the road in the adjacent village of Weitan. Villagers said the debris was left over from an altercation between soldiers and a group of men, but it wasn’t clear whether the men were Hui or Han.

China suffers occasional tensions between ethnic groups.

They are aggravated in many parts of China’s poor countryside, home to some 800 million people, by disputes over rights to scarce farmland and control of lucrative government posts.

Henan, with about 100 million people, is one of China’s most densely populated regions.

In December 2000, at least five Hui were shot and killed by police during protests in the eastern province of Shandong after a fight between a Hui and a Han butcher advertising “Muslim pork.” Muslim dietary laws forbid the eating of pork.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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