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USA TODAY - A Jeep plowed through dozens of pedestrians and policemen near Tiananmen Square at lunchtime Monday, then crashed in front of Tiananmen Gate and burst into flame.

Five people are believed dead — the driver, two passengers, a female tourist from the Philippines and a male tourist from South China's Guangdong province — and 38 people were injured, reported Qianlong.com, a Beijing government news website.Authorities cleared Tiananmen Square, home to Mao's tomb, after the crash.

An official investigation is underway, reported Xinhua, the state news agency. The unusual nature of the incident, and the way the vehicle had been driven some distance along the sidewalk, injuring and scattering pedestrians, quickly led to speculation online that the vehicle was used in a deliberate attack.

Photos posted online showed the vehicle ablaze beside the historic bridges that lead visitors under the famous portrait of Chairman Mao and into the Forbidden City, the former residence of China's emperors.

Tiananmen Square is not only a big tourist draw but also the political heart of China, and therefore one of the most sensitive areas in the country. Leaders of the ruling Communist Party live and work nearby. Major party and government events take place at the adjacent Great Hall of the People, where a national women's congress was underway Monday.

Most famous abroad for the 1989 democracy protests, put down by force, the square still draws occasional and isolated protests that are quickly snuffed out by uniformed and plainclothes security officers who patrol the square and its environs.

Fire extinguishers are positioned in several areas to stop attempts at self-immolation.

Just as the square itself is often closed before and during sensitive political anniversaries or events, the activities here sometimes trigger China's wide array of Internet censorship tools. Although some Internet comments were deleted Monday, many posts and pictures remained available.

From 1999 to 2001, followers of Falun Gong, a spiritual group banned in China, staged protests at the square, including some self-immolations. More common in recent years are occasional petitioners, sometimes distributing leaflets describing their grievances at the hands of local authorities. But the apparent use of a car as a battering ram, followed by a possibly self-started fire, would represent a deadly, new tactic.

"I was shocked when I heard the news from colleagues," said a traffic warden surnamed Chen, who works close to Tiananmen Gate, where all traces of the incident were swiftly removed Monday afternoon. "I thought this must be the safest place in China."

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