China city arms traffic cops with assault weapons

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BEIJING, Sep 17 (Reuters) - A Chinese city has taken the unusual step of arming traffic police on night shifts with assault weapons, local media reported today.

Police wearing bullet-proof vests and carrying sub-machine guns would enforce violations including speeding, drink-driving and driving without a licence in the booming Yangtze river city of Chongqing, the Beijing News said, citing a local newspaper.

''This is the first time in many years traffic police have carried special weapons. At the same time, to ensure safety, police will have to hand back all guns and bullets after their shift and not keep them themselves,'' the paper quoted an unnamed police spokesman as saying.

It did not say why just the southwestern city was taking such measures when violent crime, once virtually unheard of, has soared along with China's economic boom in cities across the country in the past few decades.

Police in the city were also carrying pistols, wearing head protection and had been authorised to open fire on suspects ''in accordance with the law'', the paper said.

The move was to ''establish police authority, strike fear into criminals and to make residents feel safer'', the paper said.

The report showed a picture of a Chinese policeman on a street holding an Uzi-like weapon as a colleague made enquiries next to a taxi.

Not all traffic police were carrying guns, nor -- ''for the time being'' -- would those on duty during daylight hours, the paper quoted Chen Honggang, a senior police official, as saying.

The new force had proved a shock to some residents, the paper said, who had questioned whether police would actually use the guns, or themselves be mugged by criminals.

''All armed police have undergone strict training. Residents, please rest easy,'' Chen said.

Last year, authorities in Guangzhou, capital of the southern province of Guangdong, put more than 500 armed police on the streets to tackle a wave of vicious crime, authorising them to shoot motorcycle-borne bag-snatchers prone to hacking the limbs of victims who resist.

REUTERS SYU RN1000

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