By Ben Blanchard
HOHHOT (Reuters) - Security forces sealed off parts of the capital of China's vast northern region of Inner Mongolia on Sunday to prevent residents from staging a planned mass protest after the hit-and-run death of a herder sparked six days of protests by ethnic Mongolians.
Hundreds of paramilitary policemen and police in riot gear, armed with shields, batons and helmets, patrolled Hohhot's Xinhua Square, next to the Inner Mongolia radio and television station, after calls spread online for a protest on Monday.
Police also surrounded Ruyi Square, in front of the local government building, but elsewhere in the city appeared bustling as normal.
Chinese authorities sealed off parts of the northern region of Inner Mongolia, a resource-rich region strategically located on the borders of Russia and Mongolia, on Friday in what residents described as martial law.
In a rare sign of defiance, hundreds of China's Mongolians, who make up less than 20 percent of the roughly 24 million population of the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, have taken to the streets in other parts of the province despite tighter security.
They were angered by the death this month of a Mongolian herder, Mergen, after being struck by a coal truck. The government announced the arrest of two Han Chinese for homicide, but that failed to stem public anger.
But the resentment goes much deeper. Inner Mongolia, which covers more than a tenth of China's land mass, is supposed to offer a high degree of self-rule, but Mongolians say the Han Chinese majority run the show and have been the main beneficiaries of economic development.
China's Mongolians rarely take to the streets, unlike Tibetans or Xinjiang's Uighurs, making the latest protests highly unusual.
The New York-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center said Mongolians were planning further protests over the next few days, including in Hohhot, less than an hour's flight from Beijing.
Some schools in Hohhot said authorities had stepped up security.
"The school has told us to keep an eye for any illegal gathering these days as June 4 is coming," one man in a high school in Hohhot told Reuters, referring to the armed crackdown on pro-democracy protesters on June 4, 1989, in Beijing.
"Security is tight, there are many policemen in the streets," he added. He declined to give his name.
A worker at a university in Hohhot said three entrances had been sealed off and there was a heavy police presence. He declined to comment on the reason. Telephone calls to the Hohhot government and its propaganda department went unanswered.
In the first response from the ruling Party to the demonstrations, Inner Mongolia's Communist Party chief Hu Chunhua told students and teachers on Friday he was representing the government to seek their views on the situation and said "public anger has been immense," state media reported.
"Please be assured, teachers and students, that the suspects ... will be punished severely and quickly, so that the ... rights of victims and their families can be resolutely safeguarded," the Inner Mongolian Daily cited Hu as saying.
But Hu's reassurances are unlikely to bring lasting calm, said Enghebatu Togochog of the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center.
"The conflict between the Chinese authorities' attempts to exploit the natural resources and the disrespect of the Mongolians' way of life will not be easily resolved, unless the Chinese government changes its policy," he said.
(Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee and Huang Yan, Writing by Sui-Lee Wee,; Editing by Nick Macfie)