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Tiananmen tense after fiery protests

Tiananmen Square
Smoke hangs over Tiananmen Square shortly after five people tried to set themselves alight  

BEIJING, China -- Police imposed the tightest security in years around Tiananmen Square to head off protests by the outlawed Falun Gong sect a day after five members set themselves on fire.

Hundreds of police patrolled the square, marring Wednesday's start for the Lunar New Year, China's biggest public holiday.

Chinese tourists who visited the square to ring in the Year of the Snake were frisked and checked for identification by uniformed and plainclothes officers at all entry points.

CNN's Beijing correspondent, Rebecca MacKinnon, reported that several Falun Gong members who tried to unfurl banners, were grabbed by police.

Fire extinguishers were stacked at points around the area after Tuesday's dramatic protest in which a man and four women doused themselves with petrol and set themselves ablaze.

The official Xinhua news agency said one of the women died of her injuries. There was no word on the condition of the others.

Fiery protests

Video of the scene, from CNN's Rebecca MacKinnon

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Tuesday's drama unfolded while a CNN producer and camera operator were at Tiananmen Square on Chinese New Years' eve.

The square is a common place of protest for members of the spiritual movement.

The CNN crew saw a man sit down on the pavement just northeast of the Peoples' Heroes Monument at the center of the square. After pouring gasoline on his clothes he set himself on fire.

Police ran to the man and extinguished the flames. Moments later four more people set themselves alight as military police detained the CNN crew, which had been taping the events.

As flames spread through their clothing the four raised their hands above their heads and staggered about. One of the four, a man, was detained and driven away in a police van.

He appeared to have serious burns on his face, and CNN producer Lisa Weaver said she could smell burning flesh as the van slowly passed.

The four remaining bodies lay on the pavement after authorities put out the flames. One of the four was seen to wave a hand as portable screens were erected to shield the bodies from view.

Two ambulances arrived to retrieve the bodies nearly 25 minutes later.

A 'one-sided media campaign'

Chinese police
Chinese police arrest a woman suspected of being a member of the banned Falun Gong sect.  

Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the spiritual group, Gail Rachlin, said the report that the five were members of Falun Gong was part of an effort against the group by the Chinese government.

"Don't you see what the PRC (People's Republic of China) is doing? They're trying to get into the media, which is what they said they would try to do. This is a one-sided media campaign and they're trying to engage others, like CNN," Rachlin said.

She said more than 120 Falun Gong protesters have been tortured to death in police custody but authorities have reported only a handful of these deaths. "They (the Chinese government) said that they committed suicide or had heart attacks," she said. The group drew millions of followers in the 1990s, preaching a mix of slow-motion exercises and eclectic ideas that followers say promote health and good citizenship.

The communist government outlawed the group in July 1999, accusing founder Li Hongzhi, who now lives in New York, of deceiving practitioners and causing the death of 1,600 followers.

Tensions ratcheted up

Falun Gong has stepped up demonstrations in recent weeks and issued warnings by founder Li of more vigorous action to protest the government crackdown.

The government has fought back by intensifying vilification of the sect in state-controlled media and encouraged a nationwide campaign to collect a million signatures in support of the ban.

The campaign is the government's first effort to make people publicly support the ban and is reminiscent of communist political movements -- from the 1950-53 Korean War to the radical Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.

"It's a way of forcing people to be a bit up front," said Gerry Groot of Adelaide University in Australia. "This is real classic 1950s tactics. That's exactly what they did during the Korean War to try to undermine the Americans."

The Associated Press & Reuters contributed to this report.

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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