More than 20 people were killed in Vietnam, according to Reuters, and a huge foreign steel project set ablaze as anti-China riots spread to the center of the country a day after arson and looting in the south, a doctor and company officials said Thursday.
Local media have, however, said only one person was killed, while China's state news agency Xinhua reported that at least two Chinese nationals had died and more than 100 were hospitalized.
The anti-China riots erupted in industrial zones in the south of the country Tuesday after protests against Beijing's placement of an oil rig in a part of the South China Sea claimed by Hanoi.
A doctor at a hospital in central Ha Tinh province said five Vietnamese workers and 16 other people described as Chinese were killed Wednesday night in rioting, one of the worst breakdowns in China-Vietnam relations since the neighbors fought a brief border war in 1979.
"There were about 100 people sent to the hospital last night. Many were Chinese. More are being sent to the hospital this morning," the doctor at Ha Tinh General Hospital told Reuters by phone.
The brunt of the violence has been borne by Taiwanese firms, mistaken by the rioters as being owned by mainland Chinese.
The dispute in the South China Sea has sparked anger on both sides. Dozens of vessels from the two countries are around the oil rig, and both sides have accused the other of intentional collisions, increasing the risk of a confrontation.
Although the two communist neighbors have close economic and political ties, Vietnamese resentment against China runs deep, rooted in feelings of national pride and the struggle for independence after decades of war and more than 1,000 years of Chinese colonial rule that ended in the 10th century.
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung called on police and state and local authorities to restore order and ensure the safety of people and property in the affected areas.
"Appropriate measures should be taken immediately to help businesses stabilize quickly and return to normal production activities," he said in a statement, without elaborating.
The Planning and Investment Ministry blamed the clashes on "extremists" and warned that they could seriously affect the investment environment in Vietnam.
Formosa Plastics Group, Taiwan's biggest investor in Vietnam, said its upcoming steel plant in Ha Tinh was set on fire after fighting between its Vietnamese and Chinese workers. One Chinese worker was killed and 90 others injured, according to a statement by the company.
At Ho Chi Minh City airport, scores of Chinese were arriving in large groups, queuing to grab tickets or get on the first flights to Malaysia, Cambodia, Taiwan, Singapore or China.
"People don't feel safe here, so we just want to get out of Vietnam," said Xu Wen Hong, who works for an iron and steel company and bought a one-way ticket to China.
"We're scared, of course. With all the factories burning, anyone would be scared in this situation."