BEIJING, June 3, 1989 (UPI) - Thousands of teenaged troops supplied with rifles and hand grenades marched on Beijing's main square Saturday to oust pro-democracy demonstrators but retreated in tears from angry students and workers who swarmed into the streets to block their advance.
Hundreds of thousands of people defied martial law restrictions and poured into Tiananmen Square hours after the overnight assault failed. Some celebrated or staged protests while others mobbed around straggling troops to scold them for the attempt.
The botched assault appeared to have breathed new life into citizen support for the student-led democracy movement, which had withered in the past week as the government tightened its grasp.
Scuffling erupted on major roads leading to the central square as the troops, some riot-equipped, advanced in a pincer movement after midnight and were met by barricades of dump trucks, public buses and human walls. No serious violence was reported.
But the bizarre incident, apparently an effort to enforce martial law in Beijing, ended in humiliation for the soldiers and left many wandering the streets in disarray after dawn. Some took refuge in parks and side streets as residents eyed them with contempt.
Premier Li Peng called out troops May 19 and declared martial law in Beijing the next day to quell weeks of mass demonstrations for greater political freedom. Students have occupied Tiananmen Square, the focus of nationwide protests, since May 13.
Students said they will continue their occupation until June 20, when the ruling body of China's parliament is to meet. Students hope the nominal legislature will use its constitutional power to remove the hardline premier.
Despite increased troop activity this week in and around the city, there had been little warning of the advance. Western diplomats said they were baffled by the decision to use a small number of obviously young recruits.
At least 3,000 soldiers marched in a long column from the city's east toward the square around 2 a.m., as some 2,000 more advanced in convoys from the west. There were unconfirmed reports of several thousand others in pockets in the city center.
''We were told to restore order in the square,'' one soldier said.
Most were armed only with knives and whip-like spring-loaded radio antennas. But the west-side convoy was found to include vehicles loaded with bayonet-fitted assault rifles, pistols and hand grenades, an American reporter on the scene said.
Nearly all the soldiers were baby-faced teenage recruits from rural provinces, part of an estimated 200,000-strong force surrounding the capital. Most wore white shirts and green pants and carried backpacks crammed with uniforms, mess kits and field rations.
''They were from the country and very young,'' said Qiu Shen, 30, an employee of an electric industry institute. ''Some didn't know why they were here. They wouldn't reveal their orders.
''They came in to create unrest in the square. I'm very angry.''
As the columns neared the square, they were confronted by the same kind of hastily erected barricades that halted the army's first advance on the night of May 19.
Students and citizens swarmed onto the streets, halting the advance. Pushing and shoving erupted outside the Beijing Hotel, less than half a mile from the square, as the troops tried to move past the blockades, but they swiftly broke ranks and retreated.
''The government is corrupt and trying to suppress the people,'' a middle-aged man shouted at the soldiers.
''You call yourself soldiers?'' an elderly man screamed. ''Who do you think you're coming to fight, the Japanese? These are your own people. Don't be Li Peng's pawns.''
Reporters repeatedly witnessed the young troops, demoralized by the angry citizens, burst into tears.
In the square, students first broadcast over a public address system an announcement warning civilians to leave the plaza. Several thousand fled by bicycle, leaving behind the tent city erected around the Monument to the People's Heroes, where students have spent the past two weeks.
The establishment of the squatter encampment culminated six weeks of protests for democratic reforms that led to the biggest anti-government demonstrations in China since the founding of the communist nation in 1949.
Following broadcast of the student warning, all but a few thousand of the nearly 10,000 students streamed out of the square to join the barricades, while those who remained either slept or formed protective cordons.
Near the Yanjing Hotel on the city's west, about 200 soldiers were trapped by large crowds who deflated the tires of their trucks. Students searched army trucks and buses and discovered rifles, boxes of handguns and other weapons, and paraded them before the crowd.
Citizens' anger was fueled by an apparently unrelated traffic accident in the area Friday night in which witnesses said a police jeep struck several bicyclists, killing one and injuring three. Large crowds had been moving around the square in protest.
On the square's east side, citizens triumphantly held up caps, ration packs and army shoes dumped by the troops in retreat. Students in the square made a large pile of captured military gear.
It was a replay of the night of May 19, when army units moved toward the city center but were blocked by citizens' barricades. Senior generals reportedly balked at using deadly force against the civilian population.
The May 19 incident, which followed weeks of protests, unleashed a power struggle in the leadership pitting hardliners backing senior leader Deng Xiaoping and Li against moderates grouped around reformist Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang.
The leadership has thus far been unable to resolve the power battle, and the protests have continued. But despite increased troop movements in Beijing, there had been no warning of a possible move against the demonstrators.
Chinese leaders and military commanders have repeatedly reassured the city that the army would not use force against the students.
The troop movement followed intensified government charges of foreign involvement in the student-led democracy movement Friday.
Western diplomats said party conservatives were delaying an expected meeting of the 175-member party Central Committee to discuss Zhao's future, noting that official comments about the embattled party chief have become less harsh in recent days.
''You delay Central Committee meetings when you're not sure how they are going to come out,'' a senior analyst told reporters.