It was the deadliest known use of force by security forces against Chinese civilians since the killings around Tiananmen Square in 1989, and marked an escalation in the social protests that have convulsed the Chinese countryside.
During the demonstration Tuesday in Dongzhou, a village in southern Guangdong province, thousands of people gathered to protest the amount of money offered by the government as compensation for land to be used to construct a wind power plant.
Police started firing into the crowd, killing as many as 10 people, mostly men, and wounding up to 20, villagers reached by telephone said Friday. They said many remained missing.
Although security forces often use tear gas and truncheons to disperse demonstrators, it is extremely rare for them to fire into a crowd — as the military did in putting down pro-democracy demonstrations around Tiananmen Square, when hundreds, if not thousands, were killed.
State media have not mentioned the incident and both provincial and local governments have repeatedly refused to comment. This is typical in China, where the ruling Communist Party controls the media and lower-level authorities are leery of releasing information without permission from the central government.
The number of protests in China's vast, poverty-stricken countryside has risen in recent months as anger comes to a head over land seizures, corruption and a yawning wealth gap that experts say now threatens social stability. The government says about 70,000 such conflicts occurred last year, although many more are believed to go unreported.
The clashes also have become increasingly violent, with injuries sustained on both sides and huge amounts of damage done to property as protesters vent their frustration in face of indifferent or bullying authorities.
All the villagers reached by The Associated Press said they were nervous and scared, and most did not want to be identified for fear of retribution. One man said the situation was still "tumultuous."
A 14-year-old girl said a local official visited the village Friday and called the shootings "a misunderstanding."
"He said he hoped it wouldn't become a big issue," the girl said by telephone. "This is not a misunderstanding. I am afraid. I haven't been to school in days."
She added: "Come save us."
Another villager said there were at least 10 deaths. "The riot police are gathered outside our village. We've been surrounded," the woman said, sobbing. "Most of the police are armed. We dare not go out of our home."
"We are not allowed to buy food outside the village. They asked the nearby villagers not to sell us goods," she said. "The government did not give us proper compensation for using our land to build the development zone and plants. Now they come and shoot us. I don't know what to say."
One woman said an additional 20 people were wounded.
"They gathered because their land was taken away and they were not given compensation," she said. "The police thought they wanted to make trouble and started shooting."
She said there were several hundred police with guns in the roads outside the village Friday. "I'm afraid of dying. People have already died."
"These reports of protesters being shot dead are chilling," Catherine Baber, deputy Asia director at Amnesty International, said in a statement. "The increasing number of such disputes over land use across rural China, and the use of force to resolve them, suggest an urgent need for the Chinese authorities to focus on developing effective channels for dispute resolution."
Amnesty spokeswoman Saria Rees-Roberts said Friday in London that although she did not want to compare Tuesday's clashes with Tiananmen Square, "police shooting people dead is unusual in China and it does demand an independent investigation."
Like many cities in China, Shanwei, the city where Dongzhou is located, has cleared suburban land once used for farming to build industrial zones. State media have said the Shanwei Red Bay industrial zone is slated to have three electricity-generating plants — a coal-fired plant, a wave power plant and a wind farm.
Shanwei already has a large wind farm on an offshore island, with 25 turbines. Another 24 are set for construction.
Earlier reports said the building of the $743 million coal-fired power plant, a major government-invested project for the province, also was disrupted by a dispute over land compensation.
Authorities in Dongzhou were trying to find the leaders of Tuesday's demonstration, a villager said.
The man said the bodies of some of the shooting victims "are just lying there."
"Why did they shoot our villagers?" he asked. "They are crazy!"