BEIJING -- Police in central China detained 15 parents for blocking roads and damaging government offices in a protest over factory pollution that left hundreds of local children with lead poisoning, villagers said Wednesday.
In a bizarre twist, police in Hunan province's Wenping township accused the parents involved in the Aug. 8 unrest of being either members of the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong, or influenced by such members.
Villagers mocked the accusation, saying authorities were using the charge as revenge against parents for rioting over the lead poisoning of more than 1,300 children caused by a manganese processing plant. Falun Gong practitioners are relentlessly persecuted by Chinese authorities.
Anger is growing in China over public safety scandals in which children have been the main victims. The ruling Communist Party is worried mass protests will threaten the country's social stability and challenge its grip on power.
The Wugang city public security bureau, which oversees Wenping, issued a notice Tuesday saying "cult members with ulterior motives" led a few villagers to block roads, attack government offices and damage public property, 40-year-old resident Dai Zuoyi said.
Police said 15 people were being held and urged the "Falun Gong practitioners to turn themselves in as soon as possible," said Dai, who read the announcement to the Associated Press over the phone.
"When I saw this notice, I laughed till my stomach hurt," Dai said. "There have never been any Falun Gong followers in Wenping. This is clearly a reprisal attack against villagers."
A notice posted on the Web site of the Wugang city government last week said Chinese and foreign Falun Gong members were spreading false rumors and "instigating the public to cause trouble" in response to the lead poisoning incident. It did not mention detentions.
Dai said his brother-in-law Li Changye was among the parents detained this week. Li, 40, was among hundreds of residents who blocked roads leading to the Wugang Manganese Smelting Plant, Dai said.
Both Dai's and Li's sons, aged 5 months and 6 years, have excessive levels of lead in their blood, Dai said. Lead poisoning can damage the nervous and reproductive systems and cause high blood pressure and memory loss.
The Wugang government's spokesman, who would give only his surname, Xia, denied that any Wenping residents had been detained.
"We have not taken any measures against the parents. But if anybody has broken the law, their cases will be investigated by the police," Xia said by phone.
He said city government officials have recently received phone calls from out of town by people who personally attacked the officials. Based on "previous experience," the police think they might be Falun Gong members, Xia said, without going into details.
The Wenping incident was one of three cases of lead poisoning involving large numbers of children last month. The first case involved more than 600 children living near a lead smelter in northwestern Shaanxi province, while the latest one occurred in Yunnan in the southwest, with about 200 children sickened.
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