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Beijing: Car Catches Fire With 3 Inside, Possible Act Of Self-Immolation

02/25/09 11:06 AM ET   AP

China

BEIJING — A passenger car at an intersection near Beijing's Tiananmen Square caught fire Wednesday with three people inside, police said, in what may have been a desperate attempt to draw attention to personal grievances.

The official Xinhua News Agency said there were two men and a woman inside the car when it was approached by police and a fire broke out. A man and a woman, a couple, were taken to a hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, the agency reported, without saying what happened to the second man.

The people in the car had come to the Chinese capital to seek help with "personal problems," the police statement said. It did not elaborate, but petitioners seeking redress for problems with local officials have begun flocking to the Chinese capital ahead of the annual legislative session which begins next week.

Xinhua had reported earlier that three men set themselves on fire, but later backtracked and issued a report that corresponded with the police's version that a blaze broke out, without providing many specifics.

Self-immolations have happened occasionally in recent years in Beijing, usually as last-ditch protests by people upset that the government has not addressed their complaints or as political protests.

Security around the square, historically a gathering place for protests, is usually extremely tight and such incidents are rare. This June marks 20 years since Chinese authorities' 1989 crackdown on student protests in Tiananmen Square.

The government is also on the alert for the potential of widespread unrest as the global economic crisis hits China, forcing 20 million migrant workers out of work.

Beijing police said in a faxed statement that officers noticed the suspicious car at an intersection just east of the Tiananmen Square in the center of the Chinese capital. The intersection marks the south end of a busy pedestrian shopping strip that is usually packed with tourists.

The couple from the car was taken to a hospital that specializes in burn injuries, Xinhua said. The man, 59, had serious burns, swelling to the throat and head, and injuries to his respiratory tract. The woman, 58, had seriously burned fingers.

There was no indication of any fire at the intersection two hours after it was reported to have happened.

In January 2001, five people set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square in an incident that Chinese authorities blamed on the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement. Two of the people _ a woman and her 12-year-old daughter _ died.

More recently, a man set himself on fire in July 2007 in front of the office where citizens go to petition for help from China's legislature. His condition is unknown.

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Filed by Jessica Gusman  |