Police officials said the jeep "burst into flames" after crashing into a guardrail of the Jinshui bridge that lies across the moat that surrounds the Forbidden City.

At least five people were killed and 38 injured when a jeep crashed into a crowd of people in Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing, state media reported on Monday.

Photographs circulating on Chinese social media websites showed a car in flames, standing right in front of the Tiananmen gate — the iconic structure that leads to the Forbidden City and bears a portrait of Mao Zedong.

Police authorities said the car crashed into a guard rail, in front of a bridge on the moat that surrounds the Forbidden City, a few minutes after noon on Monday, Xinhua reported. The driver and two passengers in the jeep were reported killed. Two tourists — a woman from the Philippines and a man from China’s southern Guangdong province — were also reported to have died. Among the 38 injured were three tourists from the Philippines, including two women, and a man from Japan.

The Chinese Ministry of Public Security, or police authority, said its officials were investigating the incident. Police officials said the jeep “burst into flames” after crashing into a guard rail of the Jinshui bridge that lies across the moat that surrounds the Forbidden City. While it remained unclear if the crash was an accident or a deliberate act, the incident sparked wide discussion on Chinese social media websites.

Most microbloggers speculated that the crash may have been an intended attack, considering that Tiananmen Square is one of the most politically sensitive places in the Chinese capital, located next to Zhongnanhai — the central leadership compound — and the Great Hall of the People.

The square has witnessed many protests in the past, most notably in 1989, when the government crushed student protests. The square, and the Tiananmen gate that now bears Mao’s portrait, have also in recent years emerged as sites of protests for aggrieved Chinese citizens.

Considering the sensitivity of the location, authorities moved quickly to limit discussion of the incident, scrubbing photographs and comments posted on social media websites such as the popular Chinese Twitter-equivalent, Sina Weibo.

Barricades were put up around the site of the crash almost immediately as the authorities doused the flames of the wreckage.

All of Tiananmen Square was evacuated, and one of the two metro rail stations that lead to the square closed for four hours, according to one attendant at the station.

However, by 4 p.m. — only four hours after the incident was reported to have taken place — the site, which is popular among tourists, was reopened to the public, and bore no obvious signs of the incident, besides patches of water on the footpath in front of the Tiananmen gate.

Police officials The Hindu spoke to at the scene of the incident refused to comment about the case. While authorities have, as yet, not released any details about the driver and two passengers, the incident is not the first of its kind. In 1982, a disgruntled female taxi driver who had been fined drove her car into the almost exact location, killing five people and injuring more than a dozen near the same bridge in front of the Forbidden City.

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