The Chinese government has confirmed that people died last week when police fired on demonstrators protesting land compensation in a southern village. But officials say only three people were killed, while witnesses put the death toll as high as 20.
China's official Xinhua news agency said Saturday that police were "forced to open fire in alarm" after demonstrators in the southern village of Dongzhou attacked a power plant and threw explosives at security forces while attempting to free two villagers arrested after earlier protests.
Police also used tear gas to break up the demonstration, Xinhua reported.
But the Guangzhou Daily newspaper described the killings as a mistake, saying at least one official in charge has been detained pending an investigation.
Witnesses to the Tuesday incident say people had gathered at the power plant to protest inadequate compensation for land the government had seized for the plant's construction.
Protests over land rights and corruption are becoming more common in China. The Beijing government admits more than 70,000 cases of rural unrest took place last year.
Anita Chan is a senior research fellow at the Contemporary China Center of the Australian National University. She says land disputes in China are becoming more violent as villagers seek proper compensation for land taken, often illegally, by powerful local officials.
"With the new economic developments, the decentralization, and loosening up, it i s almost like there is very little control from the center," she said. "Officials are now ganging up with gangsters to rob dispossessed peasants of their land. It is really becoming serious."
State media also said Saturday that a few of the Dongzhou protesters were responsible for coercing other villagers to participate in violent protests, and called the land dispute an "excuse".
Authorities have sealed the village and on police in riot gear are patrolling the streets.