BEIJING (AP) — A sport-utility vehicle plowed through crowds in front of Beijing's Forbidden City and then crashed and caught fire Monday, killing three occupants and injuring 11 tourists and security officers, police and state media said.
The injured were among the crowds in front of the iconic Tiananmen Gate, where a large portrait of Mao Zedong hangs near where tourists — both Chinese and foreign — enter the southern entrance to the former imperial palace.
The vehicle burst into flames after crashing into a guardrail of one of the ancient stone bridges leading to the gate, said a statement posted on the Beijing police's microblog.
The statement said the driver veered inside of a barrier separating a crowded sidewalk from busy Chang'an Avenue then drove along the walkway to Tiananmen Gate, which stands across the avenue from the sprawling Tiananmen Square.
Any incident in the area is considered sensitive because the square was the focus of a 1989 pro-democracy movement that was violently suppressed by the military. The square is still heavily policed to guard against political protests as occasionally happens on sensitive dates.
The statement didn't say whether the incident was accidental or deliberate, although executing such a maneuver would appear to require skill and determination. The car apparently jumped a curb at a nearby cross street and traveled about 400 meters (yards) to the spot where it was said to have caught fire.
Police did not immediately release any information about who was inside the car.
Photos of the scene that circulated on the Internet showed images of a vehicle emitting thick smoke at Tiananmen Gate.
Authorities swiftly cleared up the scene, first clearing the area of visitors then blocking views of the vehicle wreckage with rectangular screens. Later, the wreckage was removed, and there were no remaining signs of fire, car debris or damage to any of the structures in the plaza.
The entrance to the Forbidden City and the entire Tiananmen Square were closed to the public. Stepped-up bag and identity card checks were being carried out at access points to the gate.
Attendants and concession stand vendors nearby who were asked about incident all said they were not clear on what happened. Such employees are generally understood to be part-time police informants.
The area around the square is one of China's most closely guarded and politically sensitive public venues. Just to the west lies the Great Hall of the People, the seat of China's parliament, while many of China's top leaders live and work just a few hundred meters (yards) away in the tightly guarded Zhongnanhai compound.