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Southern Chinese authorities have given in to key demands of protesting villagers after a nearly two-week standoff with police, agreeing in a rare compromise to release detainees and return some confiscated land to farmers.

Guangdong's deputy Communist Party secretary Zhu Mingguo told Wukan village protest leader Yang Semao on Wednesday that four villagers being held by police would be released over the next few days, Yang told The Associated Press.

"So now we are cautiously optimistic," Yang said.

The significance of the authorities' unusual concession in Wukan depends on how the details are played out, but it could affect the way other protests are handled, particularly in the corner of coastal southern China that has seen periodic unrest over the last few years. To Wukan's northeast, the coastal town of Haimen saw a second day of protests Wednesday over a planned coal-fired power plant.

Conflicts over land disputes and other issues in much of Guangdong province have been intense because the area is among China's most economically developed, pushing up land prices.

Underscoring the government's concerns about public discontent, China's security czar Zhou Yongkang met Wednesday with law and order officials and told them to improve the resolution of social conflicts and promote fair and honest law enforcement, state media reported.

In Wukan, Zhu, the provincial official, also told Yang and another village representative that the government would buy back 66 acres (27 hectares) of farmland that had been sold to a developer and return the land to the villagers, Yang said.

There is more farmland that has been sold and is not yet accounted for, Yang said, but he added that he thought the issue would be fairly addressed by higher authorities.

"I believe that the central government is attaching great importance to this incident and they won't let us down and they won't tolerate the lower-level officials' irresponsibility," Yang said.

Wukan, a village of nearly 20,000, has for months been the site of simmering protests by locals who say officials sold farmland to developers without their consent. Villagers drove out local officials and police almost two weeks ago after key village representatives were taken away.

One of the detainees later died in police custody, further angering villagers, who believe he was beaten. Authorities say Xue Jinbo died of cardiac failure. In another concession, Zhu agreed to launch a new investigation into Xue's death, Yang said.

In a further sign that tensions were easing, police withdrew Tuesday night from road checkpoints they had set up, while villagers removed the tree trunks they had used to block the road, Yang said.

The reasons for the provincial government's apparently softer approach in the Wukan dispute are unclear, but it marks a dramatic turnaround from days past.

Up until Wednesday, officials had employed intimidation tactics common in such disputes. Riot police raided the village two weeks ago and took away leaders and set up road blocks to prevent food from being transported in. Officials blamed the unrest on "foreign forces" and threatened to crack down on protest leaders.

But the villagers refused to be cowed and issued an ultimatum at the start of the week, saying they would march to the government offices of the nearby city of Lufeng on Wednesday if authorities did not meet their demands. That would have been a direct challenge to police who have set up checkpoints on main roads outside the village.

Yang said the march was called off after the meeting with the provincial official. "Since Zhu gave us a good answer, we should give him some face," he said.

In the town of Haimen, a large group of protesters blocked a highway and set trees on both sides of the road on fire on Wednesday to demand a response from the government to their demands to stop the construction of a coal-fired power plant, said one of the protesters, a man surnamed Yu.

It was the second day of protests in the seaside town. In response to Tuesday's protests, the local government said it would temporarily suspend the power plant project, according to a report by the local Shantou Daily newspaper which could not be immediately verified.

Protesters were also enraged by reports that two had died during clashes with police Tuesday. A man at the Shantou government office surnamed Wu said no one had died and refused to answer any more questions.

On Wednesday, riot police, paramilitary police and firefighters used tear gas and electric batons to try to break up the protest on the highway, said another protester, a 20-year-old woman named Yang Wanqing.

"We're not afraid, we don't care about their warnings," Yang said by phone. "We are not just thinking about the present, we are worrying about our future. In the future the pollution from the plant will be very bad."

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Follow Gillian Wong on Twitter at http://twitter.com/gillianwong

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