BEIJING (Reuters) - Thousands of members of a quasi-religious sect besieged government offices in at least six Chinese cities in protest against a crackdown on the group, witnesses and a human rights group said Wednesday.
Several thousand members of the Falun Gong sect tried to protest at Beijing's Zhongnanhai leadership compound Wednesday against the detention of key members, witnesses said.
Police rounded up more than 1,000 people -- mostly elderly men and middle-aged women suspected of belonging to the sect -- and took them in buses to stadiums on the outskirts of Beijing, witnesses and stadium officials said.
Hundreds of uniformed and plainclothes police lined the Avenue of Eternal Peace leading to Zhongnanhai -- home to China's leaders, the Communist Party headquarters and the State Council, or cabinet.
They frustrated the sect's attempt to repeat a 10,000-strong sit-down protest outside the compound in April, aimed at demanding official status for the group. The earlier protest shocked China's leadership, and the Communist Party and government have tried to clean their ranks of sect members.
Police launched a crackdown Monday and have rounded up more than 100 key members of the sect, a Hong Kong-based human rights group said.
In a letter posted on the Internet at <http://falundafa.org>, Falun Gong appealed to members to ``protect'' the sect by organizing, explaining their aims to officials and demanding the release of detained members.
About 10,000 members protested at the government headquarters of the southern province of Guangdong Wednesday, witnesses said. Security was tight around the headquarters in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, but no incidents were reported, they said. The crowd dispersed later in the day.
In Shanghai, a few hundred members of the sect staged a peaceful sit-in at People's Square in the center of the city.
Witnesses said they left voluntarily without incident.
Police later cordoned off much of the square and barred the entrance of the city government across the street.
In the southern boomtown of Shenzhen, about 1,000 sect members protested outside city hall, one witness said. Police forced them onto buses and took them to unknown destinations.
A similar number besieged local government headquarters in the northeastern city of Dalian Tuesday, the Information Center of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China said.
Police dispersed the protest in the evening and at least five protesters were detained and two were injured, the Hong Kong-based center said.
Also Tuesday, about 500 sect members protested in front of Taiyuan's city hall in the northern province of Shanxi and about the same number protested in Weifang city in the eastern province of Shandong, it said.
And in Hong Kong Wednesday, some 40 Falun Gong members staged a silent protest in front of China's state news agency to urge Beijing to free fellow cult members.
Police and government officials declined to comment.
The sect says it has 100 million members. Critics doubt the figure, but the claim has alarmed the atheist Communist Party, which has only 60 million members.
The crackdown on the sect came after more than 13,000 members called on Chinese leaders in an open letter in June to stop suppressing them, the Hong Kong human rights group said.
Police seized literature on the sect and busts of its leader Li Hongzhi from the homes of members, the center said.
The U.S.-based Li preaches salvation from an immoral world on the brink of destruction, rails against homosexuality, rock and roll and drugs and blames science for evil in the world.
He bars followers from consulting doctors and says they can be cured by reading his books, banned by China's propaganda tsars, and practicing a form of martial arts known as qigong.
The sect was born out of qigong -- based on the theory of inner energy and incorporating an array of breathing exercises and meditation designed to heal.
The Communist Party has stopped short of labeling the sect a cult, but has railed against ``superstition'' and unorthodox religion.
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