HANOI/MANILA - Thousands of Vietnamese set fire to foreign factories and rampaged in industrial zones in the south of the country in an angry reaction to Chinese oil drilling in a part of the South China Sea claimed by Vietnam, officials said on Wednesday.
The brunt of Tuesday's violence, one of the worst breakdowns in Sino-Vietnamese relations since the neighbours fought a brief border war in 1979, appears to have been borne by Taiwanese firms in the zones in Binh Duong and Dong Nai provinces that were mistaken for Chinese-owned companies.
A police official in Binh Duong province, speaking by telephone, said about 200 people had been arrested. "We are working on other areas in the province ... We haven't seen any injuries," the official said.
Photographs posted on social media sites and blogs, purportedly of the aftermath of the violence, showed blackened shipping containers, smashed windows and several burnt out vehicles that had been overturned.
Some Taiwanese firms had spray-painted messages on the road and across their gates saying "We Support Vietnam" in an effort to distinguish themselves from Chinese enterprises.
The row over the South China Sea and anti-China violence in tightly-controlled Vietnam have raised fears of an escalation in tensions between the Communist neighbours.
"I fear a dark chapter in Sino-Vietnamese relations is now being written," said Ian Storey, a South China Sea expert at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
"And because China wants to keep that oil rig in place into August, these protests could just be the first pages."
Tran Van Nam, vice chairman of the Binh Duong People's Committee, said around 6,000 workers initially held peaceful protests on Tuesday, but order broke down when numbers swelled to about 20,000. Gates were smashed and rioters set 15 factories on fire, he said.
"This caused billions of dong (hundreds of thousands of dollars) in damages and thousands of workers will have lost their jobs," Nam said by telephone.
"We urge everyone to stay calm, exercise restraint and have faith in the leadership of the Party and State."