Fire attack on Mao's Tiananmen portrait

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Sunday, May 13, 2007. 6:12am (AEST)

Workers clean the giant portrait of Mao Zedong in Tiananmen SquareChinese police say they have detained an unemployed man who set fire to the famed giant portrait of revolutionary leader Mao Zedong that hangs in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

Gu Haiou, 35, from north-west Xinjiang region, hurled a burning object which left a burn mark on the lower left part of the iconic portrait, Xinhua news agency said, citing Beijing police.

"The picture was on fire on the left hand side," a diplomat and a photographer who were driving past in a taxi at the time said.

The two witnesses said they saw large flames and black smoke billow from the bottom of the portrait as an estimated 100 police scrambled to put out the fire and keep crowds at bay.

"When we jumped out of the taxi police immediately told us to leave," said one of the witnesses.

"We did not see what happened to start the fire."

They said that about 15 per cent of the portrait had been burned and blackened.

"By the time we came back 10 minutes later workers were already working to wash and clean up the portrait," they said.

Xinhua said the damaged six-metre by three-metre portrait which hangs over the entrance to the Forbidden City would be replaced with an identical copy.

Armed police were guarding the area and visitors were forbidden to enter the former imperial palace, the agency said, although Tiananmen Square itself remained open.

Police were still interrogating Gu, Xinhua said.

Police at Tiananmen station had earlier refused to comment.

The original portrait of Mao was painted by Zhang Zhenshi in 1950, and it has since served as the model of Mao's likeness for all the portraits that have hung on the Tiananmen Square Rostrum Building.

Mao founded the People's Republic of China in 1949.