Beijing -- Five Falun Gong followers doused themselves with gasoline and set themselves ablaze in China's Tiananmen Square on Tuesday in a suicide attempt that left one sect member dead and the other four injured.
The attempted group suicide is the latest in a series of increasingly radical actions by sect members defying the communist government's 18-month ban on Falun Gong. It came as police geared up for sect protests in Tiananmen at Wednesday's start of the Lunar New Year, China's biggest holiday.
The group has drawn millions of followers with a mix of slow-motion exercises and eclectic ideas that followers say promote health and good citizenship. The government disagrees, accusing the group of deceiving practitioners and causing the death of 1,600 followers.
On Tuesday, the followers, a man and four women, poured gasoline on themselves and set themselves afire in two ``suicidal blazes,'' the government's Xinhua News Agency said.
Police rushed to the site, Xinhua said. The brief report added that one woman burned to death and the other injured were sent to hospital. State media have accused followers of committing suicide at the instigation of sect leader Li Hongzhi. Falun Gong denies that it condones suicide.
A producer and cameraman with CNN witnessed the protest, but police immediately confiscated their videotape and detained them for 90 minutes. CNN later reported that one man sat down, poured gasoline on himself and then set himself ablaze. Moments later, as the two journalists were being detained, they saw four more people on fire, staggering forward with their hands raised.
Officers at the Tiananmen Square police station refused comment, referring all questions to Xinhua. No traces of the fiery protest could be found on the square three hours later. But it caused police to increase their usually heavy patrols on the vast plaza in central Beijing. In one pedestrian underpass leading to the square, police stopped everyone, patting them down and inspecting their bags.
Police battled sporadic Falun Gong protests throughout Tuesday. Around noon, small batches of protesters handed out leaflets and raised banners underneath the portrait of Mao Tse-tung at the square's north end before being arrested. ``Falun Dafa is good,'' one middle-aged woman yelled, using another name for the group. A plainclothes agent tripped her and sent her sprawling as she ran to elude arrest.
The square, China's symbolic political heart, has been the focus of largely peaceful Falun Gong protests since the July 1999 ban was imposed. Followers, in touch with sect activists in the United States, have promised more acts of civil disobedience to mark the opening hours of the Year of the Snake on Wednesday. The group has broadened tactics in recent months to include leafleting and painting slogans around Beijing.
Thirty followers in northern Tangshan city attempted suicide last month, but were discovered and stopped, state media said. Twelve others reportedly jumped from a four-story building in southern Guangdong province, killing one and badly injuring two others.
In an indirect admission that police have failed to keep protesters from streaming into Beijing, Xinhua said the five who tried to kill themselves on Tuesday were from Kaifeng, a city near the Yellow River 300 miles south of Beijing.