HANOI - Vietnam flooded major cities with police to avert anti-China protests on Sunday in the wake of rare and deadly rioting in industrial parks that deepened a tense standoff with Beijing over sovereignty in the South China Sea.
China has evacuated more than 3,000 nationals following the attacks on Chinese workers and Chinese-owned businesses last week, and Beijing had sent five ships on Sunday to bring more people home, China's state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
Several arrests were made in the capital Hanoi and commercial hub Ho Chi Minh City within minutes of groups trying to start protests, according to witnesses, as Vietnam's communist rulers stuck to their vow to thwart any repeat of last week's violence in three provinces in the south and centre.
Fury has gripped Vietnam after Chinese state energy firm CNOOC deployed dozens of ships two weeks ago and towed a $1 billion oil rig to a location 240 kilometers (150 miles) off Vietnam's coast in an area both counties claim.
It was one of the most assertive moves China has made in seas believed to be endowed with billions of barrels worth of oil.
Coming just days after US President Barack Obama visited several Asian allies engaged in territorial disputes with China, and US official in Washington described China's action as provocative, and said Beijing's fraught relations with neighbours could potentially strain ties with the United States.
"Our intention was to protest in support of the government to chase the oil rig away from Vietnam's territorial waters," said Van Cung, 74, a retired army colonel who was attempting to protest outside the Chinese embassy in Hanoi.
Protests of hundreds in Vietnam's cities were allowed to a week ago, a rare move in a state that usually suppresses them. However, what started as a peaceful march in two southern industrialized provinces on Monday spiraled a day later into a rampage of arson, destruction and looting of Chinese-owned factories, and Taiwanese businesses mistaken for being Chinese.
Fighting between Vietnamese and Chinese workers broke out in central Ha Tinh province on Wednesday killing two people and wounding 140, the government said. China's foreign ministry also put the casualties at two dead and 100 injured, Xinhua said.
A doctor and an eyewitness, however, said they saw between 13 and 21 dead bodies, mostly Chinese, on the night of the unrest.
Sixteen critically injured Chinese nationals were evacuated from Vietnam early on Sunday aboard a chartered medical flight arranged by the Chinese government, the foreign ministry said in a separate statement.
The violence has angered China, which has demanded swift action against the perpetrators and for Vietnam to do more to protect Chinese nationals and businesses.
A text message was sent to Vietnamese cellphone users on Saturday saying Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung had ordered the security forces to prevent illegal acts. A top police investigator rejected assertions that the authorities remained aloof when the rioting erupted.