BEIJING, Feb 5 (AFP) - Chinese police have detained hundreds, and possibly thousands of practitioners of the outlawed Falungong movement, including a US citizen, in a crackdown on a Lunar Year protest, members and rights officials said Saturday.

"A friend of mine was arrested last night and about 1:55 a.m. she called me on her cellular phone and told me she was detained with between 2,000 and 3,000 (others)," Hannah Li, a Falungong member told AFP.

Li said her friend, a US passport-holding Chinese American, was taken early Saturday to northern Beijing's Xiao Tangshan detention center and hoped to remain in police custody as long as possible to document the treatment of the followers.

She refused to identify the woman and believed police had yet to discover her cellular phone.

"We have come here to help the mainland followers," said Li, a US green card holder.

"We want to tell the government that Falungong is not an evil sect and that followers should be allowed to do their morning exercises freely."

An official at the detention center confirmed that Falungong followers were being held there, but refused to reveal how many.

"If they are Falungong followers, then you don't need to ask about them," she said.

Frank Lu, head of the Hong Kong-based Information Centre of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China said he had been informed that at least 300 Falungong followers had been rounded up Friday and early Saturday, including some Westerners.

Li said dozens of Falungong practitioners from the US, Australia and Hong Kong had come to Beijing during the Lunar New Year festival to protest the ban on the traditional Chinese mystical group.

At least one US passport holder, Zuo Yan, had been detained at the Beijing Airport by customs police and was believed to have been expelled, Li said.

The protest appeared to be the biggest by the Falungong since mid-October when thousands were rounded up for protesting government legislation that aimed to stifle the group.

At least 50 Falungong members were seen by Western journalists being detained in Tiananmen Square in a round up at midnight Friday as China began Lunar New Year celebrations.

Li said followers had been detained all day Friday and but the Falungong would continue to protest.

Saturday morning police vans criss-crossed Tiananmen Square, stopping to detain anyone in a meditation stance or sitting in the lotus position.

At least 25 members of the group were seen taken away over a period of an hour amid a heavy presence of uniformed and plain clothes police.

One woman was kicked by police before she was put in a van.

Tourists and locals who attempted to photograph the police action had their film confiscated.

"You can take any pictures that you want, even the soldiers, but you can't take pictures of those people exercising," a policeman told a US tour party.

Chinese authorities admit that more than 35,000 members of the banned group were detained while attempting to make similar protests between July and mid-November, after Falungong was outlawed.

Scores of alleged "core leaders" of the group have been tried and sentenced to up to 18 years imprisonment for "using an evil sect to sabotage the implementation of the law".

The ruling Communist Party has called the sect the biggest threat to its political power since the 1989 Tiananmen democracy protests were brutally crushed by the Chinese military.