Police cars block off the roads leading into Tiananmen Square as smoke rises after a vehicle crashed in front of Tiananmen Gate in Beijing on Monday. (AFP/Getty Images)

Authorities were investigating Tuesday whether ethnic minorities from China’s troubled Xinjiang region were involved in a fiery vehicle crash in Tiananmen Square the day before that killed at least five people.

In a notice sent to hotels in Beijing, police ordered hotel staff to search for “suspicious” guests and vehicles related to Monday’s incident and specifically named two residents from counties in western China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, according to state media and reports quoting hotel staff.

The two men appeared to have Uighur names, which are markedly distinct from Han Chinese names.

Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority, have clashed repeatedly and violently with authorities in Xinjiang in recent years. Their possible involvement in Monday’s incident — in which an SUV veered into a crowd in the iconic square, then crashed and burst into flames — indicates that the crash may have been a deliberately staged effort to protest Chinese rule.

For years, many Uighurs have agitated against the ethnic Chinese population and China’s authoritarian government — a reaction, Uighur groups say, to oppressive government policies and widespread discrimination. Ethnic rioting and bloody clashes reached a peak four years ago, causing more than 200 deaths and resulting in even stricter policies.

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Reached by phone Tuesday, a government spokesman in Xinjiang confirmed that officials there are working with Beijing police on the investigation but declined to talk about the case in detail.

The state-controlled Global Times newspaper quoted Zhu Yan, an officer with the Beijing police, as confirming the authenticity of the notice to hotels. Some hotel staff also said they had received such a notice.

Beijing police declined to comment on the specifics of the investigation.

The SUV burst through the security barriers lining the square and drove through a crowd of pedestrians before slamming into one of the stone bridges leading to the former imperial palace known as the Forbidden City, Beijing police said on their official microblog.

The vehicle ignited not far from an imposing portrait of Mao Zedong, communist China’s founding father, which hangs from the ancient, red-painted Tiananmen Gate.

All three occupants of the vehicle were killed, along with two pedestrians. At least 38 people were injured. Within minutes, police flooded Tiananmen Square, which remains China’s most sensitive public area after a deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protesters there in 1989.

World Uyghur Congress president Rebiya Kadeer said in a statement, “The Chinese government will not hesitate to concoct a version of the incident in Beijing, so as to further impose repressive measures on the Uyghur people.”

Beijing police declined to comment on the specifics of the investigation.

Hundreds of social media posts about the crash were deleted, images posted to the Internet were removed and Web searches about the incident were blocked. There was no mention of the deaths or the crash on the evening news.

At a news briefing Tuesday, a spokeswoman for China’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the crash but defended the government’s governance of the Xinjiang region.

“We admit that there are some violent and terrorist cases in Xinjiang. We believe that any government would crack down on such incidents to ensure the safety and security of society and the property and lives of people,” spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.

Li Qi contributed to this report.