Five people died and 38 were injured Monday when a car raced onto a sidewalk packed with tourists in Beijing's Tiananmen Square where it crashed and caught fire, Chinese official news agency Xinhua said.

The car hit an ancient stone bridge that crosses the moat at the gates to the Forbidden City and burst into flames under the giant portrait of Mao Zedong.

The driver and two passengers died in the crash, while hours later two people who had been run over by the car also passed away, one of whom was a Filipino tourist.

Among the injured were five foreign visitors.

The causes of the accident are unknown, though some media speculate that it was an immolation attempt as an act of protest, given the symbolism of the area, the principal scene of the 1989 student protests.

Authorities moved rapidly to clear the area, cordoning it off and evacuating the square, which in the afternoon remained closed to tourists, though the Forbidden City was open.

Numerous photos of black clouds of smoke rising from the burning car and blocking the view of the palace gates were widely circulated on social networks, but began to be censored immediately.

The Chinese government has made no comments as yet, while Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying refused to answer questions about the matter during her regular press conference.

In 2011 a man burned himself to death in Tiananmen Square, apparently to show his anger at the results of a civil lawsuit, an incident that was never reported by Chinese media.

The year before, in 2010, a similar incident occurred when a car was consumed by flames next to the portrait of Mao Zedong, which sparked alarm among security forces.

Tiananmen Square is always under intense police surveillance, especially on the eve of anniversaries of the 1989 massacre. EFE