Chinese media say police in the northeast shot and killed three soldiers who fled their barracks with an assault rifle and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.
Few details were available and almost all reports of the incident had been removed from official websites by Thursday with only their headlines remaining, a sign of China's extreme sensitivity over military misconduct.
However, China Radio International reported on its English-language site that police killed three soldiers and captured another one alive after cornering them in the city of Yingkou in Liaoning province on Wednesday. An unidentified number of police officers also were injured in the capture.
CRI said the four went absent without leave from their barracks in neighboring Jilin province early Wednesday morning and had taken a rifle and 795 rounds. No motive was given for their going AWOL, although it said area banks and jewelry stores were ordered to be on high alert against attempted robberies.
Calls to police in Jilin and Yingkou rang unanswered and people answering phones at local government offices said they had no information about the incident.
The Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy said the soldiers may have fled because of a recent order for the early discharge of soldiers with poor disciplinary records or who had entered service before turning 18 in violation of regulations. It said at least two of those involved were underage, and may have feared that their early discharges would lead to discrimination in future job searches.
The center said family members of the four, identified as Lin Penghan, Yang Fan, Li Xinxin and Zhang Xiyan, had been taken from their homes by authorities.
The incident comes amid the annual winter recruitment drive for the 2.3 million-member People's Liberation Army, the world's largest standing military, which has sought to improve the quality of its manpower by expanding enrollment among university graduates and better educated city dwellers.
Discipline is not generally considered a major problem in the PLA, although there have been occasional violent protests among demobilized soldiers complaining over the lack of benefits and job prospects.