MILLIONAIRES, police chiefs, illegal casinos, loan sharks and a mafia-busting cop in hot pursuit of hundreds of gangsters.

No, not the plot of a Hollywood blockbuster, but a crackdown on organised crime and its ''protective umbrella'' of rich and powerful contacts in Chongqing.

This week police said they were looking for 469 suspects from 14 gangs - on top of the 1544 they have already detained. They are holding 19 alleged leaders and issued the photographs of 67 more for whom they have warrants.

Scores of police officers were accused of protecting gangs, and three millionaires were under investigation, Xinhua news agency reported.

A former Chongqing police chief, and current director of the city's judicial bureau, Wen Qiang, is among those under internal investigation, suspected of protecting criminals.

His successor as deputy police chief, Wang Lijun, is a reputed ''mafia buster'' and was promoted to the top job this year amid an anti-crime drive. launched by Bo Xilai, who became the top official two years ago.

Mr Wang said gangs had run illegal loan businesses worth as much as 30 billion yuan ($5.3 billion) - equivalent to a third of the city's annual revenue. The 40-year-old police chief has 20 scars from knife and bullet wounds, and was once in a coma for 10 days due to his long-term battle with the triads, The South China Morning Post reported.

Last month he told a conference that organised crime was hiding behind businesses and had entered many industries through blackmail, extortion and illegal loans.

Gangs in Chongqing were known for ''having a long history, wide coverage, deep connections, huge membership, high quality and vicious influence'', he said.

Police say they have seized 48 guns, frozen or confiscated assets worth 1.53 billion yuan - including those held overseas - and received more than 9000 tip-offs. Local media said murders had fallen to their lowest seasonal rate in five years.

A professor of public security at the Chinese People's Public Security University, Chen Tianben, said organised crime was a problem in many Chinese cities, and some senior officials offered a ''protective umbrella''.

''I think the police action in Chongqing must be related to the recent political change of the local authority,'' Professor Chen said. ''But it is hard to say whether the change of the officials led to the crackdown, or the crackdown on the gangs dragged down more officials.''

? More than 1300 children have been sickened by lead poisoning in Hunan province, the second such case involving a large number of children in the last month, Xinhua reported yesterday.

The children lived near a manganese processing plant in Wenping township, it said, where 1354 children were diagnosed as having excessive lead in their blood. Local authorities had shut the smelter and detained two of its executives.

In Shaanxi province, in the country's north, at least 851 children in two villages near a smelter in Changqing tested positive for lead poisoning, which can damage the nervous and reproductive systems and cause high blood pressure and memory loss.

Guardian News & Media,

Associated Press