REPORTING FROM BEIJING -- Four Chinese soldiers stole a rifle and deserted their base, leading authorities on a tragic and baffling manhunt through northeastern China that ended with three of them shot and killed.
By Chinese standards, the case was unusually public and exposed the possibility of disciplinary problems within the 2.3-million-soldiers-strong People's Liberation Army. Chinese censors hastened to scrub coverage of the incident from the Internet, but enough had already leaked out Thursday to piece together what happened.
The soldiers, led by a 23-year-old drill sergeant, Yang Fan, slipped away from their base near Jilin City before dawn on Wednesday with the rifle and 795 bullets.
Officials apparently believed the four were intent on armed robbery, because soon after they went AWOL, an emergency warning went out in Jilin City: "To prevent tragedy and to avoid casualties and economic damage, the police department requests banks and jewelry shops to strengthen security."
But the soldiers instead headed south toward Yang's hometown in Liaoning province. More than 250 miles away from the base, police caught up with their taxi and there was a shootout. Early reports, since deleted from Chinese news sites, said two police officers were also killed in the clash. It was unclear from the published reports which one of the four soldiers survived the shootout.
The motives have not been disclosed, but it appears that Yang was the instigator; he was the oldest, the others being 18 and 19 years old.
An activist blogging about the incident suggested that Yang's family faced eviction from their home and that he was bent on revenge. There were also hints of romantic problems. Exactly one year earlier, he had posted on a Facebook-style chat site a poem lamenting the difficulty of having a relationship while in the military.
"I couldn't be with you when you needed me most," the poem read. "I'm sorry, I'm just a drill sergeant. From the moment I started to wear this uniform, I was destined to be cut off from love and emotions in this world. The well-ironed uniform is not just for show -- it carries responsibility for the country and its people."
The chat site has a photo of Yang, a plump young man with a crew cut, as he was drinking beer with buddies on his birthday.
Ni Lexiong, a military expert at the Shanghai Institute of Political Science and Law, said the incident was not unprecedented in the Chinese military.
"We have millions of soldiers in China," Ni said Thursday. "We can't stop one or two or a few from going crazy like this, but when such things happened before, they never reported it. Now because of the Internet and new media, it is impossible for the government to control the flow of information."
The most notorious incident was in 1994, when a lieutenant, Tian Mingjian, killed more than 10 people during a rampage through Beijing. The Chinese government tried to censor the story, but was unable to do so as the shooting took place near a diplomatic compound and one of the dead was an Iranian diplomat.
-- Barbara Demick
Tommy Yang of the Times Beijing bureau contributed to this report.
Photo: People's Liberation Army special forces at an event in 2009. Credit: Joe Chan / Reuters