by Ian Timberlake
HANOI, August 21, 2011 (AFP) - Vietnamese police detained at least 15 people during a crackdown Sunday on anti-China protesters who defied an order to stop an unprecedented series of rallies over a territorial dispute.
Just minutes after the protest began, plainclothes agents moved in to force the demonstrators onto two waiting buses and drove them away, according to an AFP reporter at the scene.
The rally was the 11th since early June to protest against Chinese actions in the tense South China Sea, the scene of long-standing tensions between the neighbouring countries over rival territorial claims.
Two protests in July were forcibly dispersed by police after talks between Hanoi and Beijing, but subsequent rallies were allowed to go ahead until authorities in the Vietnamese capital on Thursday issued a stop order.
Published in Hanoi Moi, a mouthpiece for the ruling Communist Party, the order said those who continue to gather illegally could face "necessary measures".
It said the protests were linked to "anti-state forces" who were "instigating national hatred" -- allegations which prominent intellectuals involved in the protests deny.
Overtly political demonstrations are rare in authoritarian Vietnam but analysts said the gatherings initially served Hanoi's purpose in expressing displeasure with Beijing.
Before the authorities moved in, about 30 people, some of them middle-aged, had time to unfurl their banners and chant slogans beside Hoan Kiem lake, a popular destination for both tourists and locals in the city centre.
One sign compared China to the Nazis of World War II Germany. "Danger. Stop China Chinazi," it said.
One woman wept as her fellow demonstrators were detained, across from a square where protesters had in the past gathered but which was occupied by a noisy youth rally on Sunday.
Nguyen Quang Thach, 36, who has attended all of the rallies, said he had considered staying at home on this occasion until the government issued the order to end the gatherings.
"Because they had the notice, I had to come," he said.
Intellectuals linked to the protests on Friday rejected the government's order to halt the rallies.
In a petition to Hanoi's governing People's Committee, the group described the order to halt the gatherings as illegal.
"In fact, all these demonstrations took place peacefully and in order," presenting a good image of the citizens' patriotism that had been internationally recognised, said the document signed by 25 people including economists, bloggers, a former vice-minister and a retired general.
Vietnam and China have a longstanding dispute over sovereignty of the potentially oil-rich Paracel and Spratly island groups, which straddle vital commercial shipping lanes in the South China Sea.
Protests began after tensions flared in May when Vietnam said Chinese marine surveillance vessels had cut the exploration cables of an oil survey ship inside the country's exclusive economic zone.