HANOI: Vietnamese security forces stifled fresh protests Sunday over China’s plans to drill for oil in contested waters, as Beijing sent five ships to help evacuate its nationals from Vietnam following deadly mass riots last week.
China’s state media said more than 3,000 of its citizens had already returned home in recent days after the territorial tensions and riots sent relations between the frequently quarrelsome communist neighbors spiraling to their lowest point in decades.
Enraged mobs torched and otherwise damaged hundreds of foreign-owned factories and other enterprises last week, killing two Chinese nationals and injuring about 140.
While China’s deployment of the giant rig is seen in Vietnam as a grave provocation, the ferocious public reaction appeared to catch authorities by surprise. They took no chances Sunday, as activist groups tried to stage further demonstrations, though they insisted they would be peaceful.
Hundreds of security personnel swarmed over streets leading to the sprawling Chinese embassy in Hanoi, restricting access to the area and other suspected protest sites.
Blogs by civil society groups involved in the protests said activists had been detained in several areas around the country or prevented from leaving their homes.
China’s Xinhua news agency said the Chinese nationals who were brought home included 135 people hurt in the unrest last Tuesday and Wednesday, including 16 who were “critically injured.”
China also said it was dispatching five ships to bring home even more of its nationals and would suspend some bilateral exchanges with its southern neighbor.
The violence was “damaging the atmosphere and conditions for exchanges and cooperation,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement said.
China had earlier warned its citizens against travel to Vietnam following what it called the “explosion of violence” and has urged its nationals still in the country to increase safety precautions.
The oil rig standoff has further poisoned relations between two countries that have fought territorial skirmishes in the past and are increasingly at odds over their South China Sea claims.
Workers demonstrated in 22 of Vietnam’s 63 provinces last week, according to the government, with furious mobs torching hundreds of foreign-owned businesses believed to be linked to China or which employed Chinese personnel.
China is widely accused in Vietnam of bullying that stretches back more than 1,000 years, and Hanoi’s communist government occasionally allows protesters to vent anger.
But the recent outbursts have sent the government scrambling to limit damage to a developing economy dependent on foreign investment.
“We will not allow any acts targeting foreign investors, businesses or individuals, to ensure that the regrettable incidents will not be repeated,” Dang Minh Khoi, assistant to Vietnam’s foreign minister, told reporters Saturday.
“We ask countries to continue to encourage their investors and citizens to rest assured on doing business in Vietnam.”
Vietnamese officials say more than 300 suspected perpetrators were being prosecuted.
Vietnam’s abundant, cheap labor market attracted $21.6 billion in direct foreign investment in 2013, up from $16.3 billion in 2012, according to government figures.