Ethnic demonstrations in Inner Mongolia will be handled according to the law and the government will respond to "reasonable demands" from protesters, a Chinese government spokeswoman said Tuesday.
The Foreign Ministry's Jiang Yu said the government would take necessary measures to protect the interests of all groups, but would also act against troublemakers.
"As far as I understand, the local government pays great attention to this incident and will solemnly handle it according to law, and the local government will positively respond to those reasonable demands of the people," Jiang told reporters at a regularly scheduled news conference.
Jiang's remarks were the central government's first direct response to the region's largest demonstrations in 20 years. The protests broke out in cities and towns across the sprawling northern pastureland following the deaths of two Mongols in clashes with Chinese in mid-May. Demonstrators are calling for greater protections for Mongol culture and the traditional pastoral lifestyle.
The government has responded with a broad clampdown, pouring police into the streets, disrupting Internet service and confining students to campus. Seeking to mollify Mongol anger, authorities also swiftly arrested three people over the killings and pledged to better regulate the booming coal industry that herders blame for spreading pollution and degrading the delicate steppe on which they depend.
Jiang said the government would "earnestly handle the relationship between environmental protection and economic development and take necessary measures to protect the fundamental interests of all ethnic groups."
She said those who have committed crimes would be dealt with in accordance with law.
It was not clear whether Jiang was referring to protesters or those arrested over the killings. Witnesses reported several people were detained following a standoff between protesters and police on Monday in the city of Hohhot.
There were no reports of protests on Tuesday and people reached by telephone at travel agencies, hotels, fast food restaurants and shops in Hohhot said they knew of no demonstrations.
Staff at government offices, three local universities, and government-controlled Muslim and Buddhist religious institutions refused to comment in a likely sign that a media blackout has been ordered.
Hohhot's main downtown square has been cordoned off with crime scene tape and paramilitary policemen stationed along its outer edge, according to photos taken Sunday and posted on the website of the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center. Riot police vehicles were parked along side streets, while officers also guarded the gates of local universities to prevent students from leaving or outsiders from entering.
Prevented from marching, students have instead staged small demonstrations and acts of defiance on campus, including throwing Chinese-language textbooks out of dormitory windows, the center said. Teachers were also being confined to campuses, it said.
The protests have been mostly peaceful so far, unlike recent anti-government riots in Tibet and the far western region of Xinjiang where Chinese migrants and businesses have been targeted.
China accused groups outside China of orchestrating the violence, and Jiang again pointed to unidentified forces abroad as stirring up trouble in Inner Mongolia.
"As for those overseas trying to play up this incident for ulterior motives, we feel that it would be impossible for them to succeed," Jiang said.
Squeezed between the Great Wall and the independent nation of Mongolia, Inner Mongolia has seen a flood of Chinese migrates in recent decades that has reduced native Mongols to less than 20 percent of the population. Many Mongols speak little of their native language as a result of years of Chinese education and the mining sector is quickly supplanting herding as the backbone of the local economy.