BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese authorities have arrested a police officer suspected of drunk driving after he crashed a vehicle and killed five people, setting off protests by local residents, media reports said on Sunday.
The policeman in Runan county, in the poor central province of Henan, has been charged with "endangering public security by dangerous means" after crashing his police van into two street lamp poles, crushing five people to death, the official Xinhua news agency said.
"He is suspected of driving under the influence of alcohol," it quoted a government statement as saying. Three people were injured and remain in hospital.
The Southern Metropolis Daily said that local people, unhappy with the way police had handled the incident, overturned and smashed up vehicles which arrived to remove the bodies.
The brief Xinhua report made no mention of any protest and officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
Users of China's popular Twitter-like microblogging service, Sina Weibo, posted graphic pictures of some of the dead, and streets clogged with onlookers.
In one picture, two mini buses had been overturned. Reuters was not able to independently verify their authenticity.
"The county's public security bureau has set up a special group to investigate the incident," Xinhua said.
It added that the policeman could be sentenced to death if found guilty.
Protests in China have become relatively common over corruption, pollution, wages, and illegal land grabs that local officials attempt to justify in the name of development.
But the ruling Communist Party is sensitive to any threat to its hold on power following the unrest that has swept the Arab world and ahead of a leadership transition next year, when President Hu Jintao is expected to step down as party head.
A town in eastern China erupted in protests last week, set off by a tax dispute.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Ron Popeski)