BEIJING, Jan. 23 (AP) - Five Falun Gong followers reportedly set themselves on fire Tuesday in China's Tiananmen Square to protest the communist government's 18-month ban on their movement.

One follower died in the attempted group suicide, according to the government-run Xinhua news agency. The reported action prompted police to tighten security and then close the square in the opening hours of China's lunar new year.

The Falun Gong movement denied that its members were involved in the action, however.

Falun Gong -- also know as Falun Dafa -- issued a statement saying: "This so-called suicide attempt on Tiananman Square has nothing to do with Falun Gong practitioners because the teachings of Falun Gong prohibit any form of killing. Mr. Li Hongzhi, the founder of the practice, has explicitly stated that suicide is a sin." Li Hongzhi is living in exile in New York.

The statement accused Xinhua, which identified the burn victims as Falun Gong members, of lying. It said the Xinhua report was "yet another attempt by (China) to defame the practice of Falun Gong" and called on international media and human rights groups to investigate. The statement did not offer its own explanation of the incident.

After weeks of words, both the spiritual movement and communist government have turned to brasher tactics.

Falun Gong has stepped up demonstrations in recent weeks and issued warnings by its founder of more vigorous action to protest the crackdown. The government has fought back by intensifying vilification of the sect in state-controlled media and supporting a nationwide campaign to collect a million signatures against the group.

The campaign is the government's first effort to make people publicly support the ban and is reminiscent of Chinese communist political campaigns from the 1950-53 Korean War to the radical Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.

``It's a way of forcing people to be a bit upfront,'' said Gerry Groot of Adelaide University in Australia. ``This is real classic 1950s tactics. That's exactly what they did during the Korean War to try to undermine the Americans.''

The government's efforts have accelerated with the approach of Wednesday's lunar new year, China's biggest holiday. Expecting the same mass protests that marred celebrations last year, police checked people entering the square, patting many down and inspecting their bags.

Still, five sect followers managed to douse themselves with gasoline in the middle of the square and set themselves on fire in two ``suicidal blazes,'' the government's Xinhua News Agency said.

Police rushed to the site, Xinhua said. The brief report added that one woman burned to death and the surviving injured were taken to a hospital.

A producer and cameraman with CNN witnessed the protest. CNN reported that one man sat down, poured gasoline on himself and then set himself on fire. Moments later, the journalists saw four more people on fire, staggering forward, their hands raised in a meditation pose.

Police confiscated CNN's videotape and detained the journalists for 90 minutes. Officers at the Tiananmen Square police station refused comment, referring all questions to Xinhua.

The group suicide attempt brought even tighter security, which blocked all but a few dozen revelers from gathering on the square to welcome the Year of the Snake. As firecrackers crackled around Beijing after midnight, police cleared even them from the square.

State media have accused followers of committing suicide at the instigation of sect leader Li Hongzhi, something Falun Gong has denied. But Tuesday's self-immolation was the first independently confirmed suicide attempt by reported group members.

The group drew millions of followers in the 1990s, preaching a mix of Buddhism, Taois and traditional Chinese slow-motion exercises and other eclectic ideas that followers say promote health and good citizenship. The government outlawed the group in July 1999, accusing Li, now believed to be living in the United States, of deceiving practitioners and causing the death of 1,600 followers.

With Beijing bidding this year to host the 2008 Olympics, China is keen to gain the upper hand in the struggle. Its repression is taking its toll on the group, with thousands forced to recant in deprogramming centers and labor camps. A Hong Kong-based rights group counts 104 deaths from abuse in custody.

``We don't want cults, these poisons, to harm our society,'' said Wang Yusheng, secretary-general of the China Anti-Cult Association, whose drive to collect 1 million signatures has received intensive coverage in state media.

``If Falun Gong practitioners can go to Tiananmen Square to create disturbances, then we can organize and rouse the masses behind a 1 million-signature campaign,'' Wang said.

Wang estimates that between 50,000 to 80,000 practitioners are still participating in illegal Falun Gong activities. But ``there are 1.2 billion Chinese and so many members of the public who are dissatisfied and disgusted with Falun Gong,'' he said.

Over the lunar new year, campaigners plan to set up booths at traditional temple fairs in Beijing to collect signatures. The signatures will be sent in March to Geneva for the annual meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, where China wages a yearly battle to avoid scrutiny of its rights record.

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