BEIJING, July 20 (AP)--Police swiftly broke up scattered Falun Gong protests Thursday morning, punching some protesters and dragging others into vans on the first anniversary of China's crackdown on the meditation group.

More than 90 people were rounded up in Tiananmen Square. Most demonstrated individually or in small groups--unfurling small banners, sitting in the lotus position or raising their arms in an O-shape, a popular meditation pose for the sect.

The display showed that one of China's biggest political campaigns in years may have thinned the resilient group's ranks but has failed to wipe out the movement, branded an unprecedented threat to communist rule.

At a news conference, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao spoke at great length about Falun Gong, calling the group a ``scourge of society'' and an ``evil sect that has brought calamity to the country and the people.''

Thursday's protests happened between 8:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. when thousands of school children were visiting the square, one of Beijing's most popular tourist sites. Some of the students witnessed the brutal detentions, and they talked excitedly to each other about the scene.

Falun Gong protests have become routine in the past year, and police, who frequently use violence in the roundups, have become efficient at arresting and hauling away the protesters. Most of the acts of defiance lasted only seconds Thursday. Some protesters who refused to cooperate with police were punched in the chest, stomach and face.

One middle-aged woman in a plum-colored pant suit was sitting with three other people on the ground in the lotus position when police questioned her before dragging her into a van. Once in the vehicle, she started shrieking and a police officer punched her repeatedly in the face. Between blows, he lowered the van's blinds so people couldn't watch.

The blue and white police vans shuttling protesters away raced back and forth through the crowded square, honking their horns so tourists would clear the way. As one van drove away with protesters, many of the detainees could be seen crying. One man put his palms together in a gesture of prayer and looked at the crowd as he was driven off.

The police presence was extremely thick, with clumps of uniformed officers at the entrance of the square asking some people for identification. Plainclothes police, whose walkie-talkies made them easy to spot, trained high-powered binoculars on the square and radioed their comrades when they spotted a meditator.

Police snatched banners away from protesters within seconds after they were unfurled at different corners of the square.

Founded eight years ago, Falun Gong attracted millions of followers with its blend of slow-motion exercises, meditation and ideas drawn from Buddhism, Taoism and its founder--Li Hongzhi, a former government clerk whose whereabouts are now unknown.

The government has accused the group of cheating followers and causing 1,500 deaths, mostly of followers it maintains refused medical treatment in accordance with what it claims are the group's teachings.

One year ago Thursday, security agents detained dozens of key Falun Gong organizers. Sect followers responded with mass protests, and two days later Chinese leaders outlawed Falun Gong, declaring it a public menace.

Since then, thousands of Falun Gong followers have been jailed. A human rights group based in Hong Kong says 24 of the detainees have died from mistreatment, while the government denies that Falun Gong followers are mistreated in custody.

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