Three Men Set Themselves on Fire inside Car in Beijing

Beijing, China - Three men set themselves on fire inside a car in an expensive shopping district in downtown Beijing on Wednesday afternoon, police and state media reports said.

A preliminary investigation of the high-profile protest showed the men had come to the capital to file grievances with the central government, police said, in a common tactic that local governments often try to squash. Unnamed sources told the Reuters news agency that at least one of the men might have come from the restive Uighur minority in China's northwestern Xinjiang province. Xinjiang public security officials would not confirm the report, which comes as authorities step up security ahead of several sensitive political anniversaries this year.

At 2:50 p.m., a car with out of town plates pulled up to the southern end of the Wangfujing pedestrian street, a popular tourist spot, Beijing police said in a faxed statement. When police approached the suspicious-looking car, the interior suddenly burst into flames. Police put out the fire and sent two of the men to the hospital, where their injuries were said to not be life-threatening. A third man was taken away by ambulance, the New China News Agency said without elaborating.

Self-immolations in China have been used as political statements or last-resort protests by individuals upset that the government has not solved their complaints. In 2001, five people the government said were members of the banned Falun Gong sect set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square, the scene of a deadly crackdown on student protests 20 years ago this June. Falun Gong denies that people who set themselves on fire are true followers. Three years ago, a man protesting not being paid set himself on fire in the same square, which is about half a mile from Wednesday's incident.

On Wednesday, a witness told Reuters they saw "some kind of incendiary device" explode as police wrenched open the door of the small grey hatchback, which had three Chinese flags attached to its roof.

The apparently limp body of a man pulled from the car was laid out on the street, the witness said, while police pulled a screaming woman from the passenger side. It was not immediately clear if the woman described by the witness was a fourth person in the car or one of the three people that police identified as men.

Police also removed blankets and cans from the back seat, according to the witness, who was passing by on a bicycle.

Chinese counterterrorism experts have warned that supporters of separatist movements fighting to end Chinese rule in Tibet and Xinjiang as well as Falun Gong adherents could stir up dissent and possibly turn to self-immolation and self-poisoning.

Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the World Uighur Congress, an exile group based in Germany, said he was trying to determine whether Uighurs were involved. "One thing I must say that the situation of Uighur people is too bad to be described. A crisis can happen at any moment. There are a lots of Uighur petitioners in other places, too, but the government calls the peaceful protests of Uighurs 'terrorism.' Uighur petitioners are discriminated against in Beijing; they can't even find a hotel to stay in."

Li Li, a spokeswoman for the Public Security Department of Xinjiang, said: "We have no information about the self-immolation attempt and there is no evidence that the three are from Xinjiang. All information should come from the local police bureau in Beijing.