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Police crack down on new violent protests

Video by Rachel MARUSAK


Latest update : 2009-07-08

Riot police clashed with rock-throwing Han Chinese protesters who took to the streets in the capital of the predominantly Muslim region of Xinjiang after two days of ethnic unrest left 156 dead and more than 1,000 wounded.

REUTERS - Riot police fired tear gas to disperse rock-throwing Han Chinese protesters who took to the streets in the capital of the Muslim region of Xinjiang on Tuesday, two days after ethnic unrest left 156 dead and more than 1,000 wounded.


Hundreds of protesters from China's predominant Han ethnic group smashed shops owned by Uighurs, a Turkic largely Islamic people who share linguistic and cultural bonds with Central Asia.


Uighurs protesting against the arrest of relatives also clashed with police. Many were women, wailing and waving the identity cards of husbands, brothers or sons they say were arbitrarily seized in a sweeping reaction to Sunday's rioting in the city of Urumqi.


"My husband was taken away yesterday by police. They didn't say why. They just took him away," a woman who identified herself as Maliya told Reuters.


Fighting broke out briefly when Uighur protesters advanced towards hundreds of anti-riot police carrying clubs and shields on Tuesday, but there was no bloodshed.


Along with Tibet, Xinjiang is one of the most politically sensitive regions in China and in both places the government has sought to maintain its grip by controlling religious and cultural life while promising economic growth and prosperity.


Some protesters vowed defiance and denounced the arrests after the protest in Saimachang, a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Urumqi with small shops and brick-and-mud homes along dusty alleys.


Abdul Ali, a Uighur man in his 20s who had taken off his shirt, held up his clenched fist. "They've been arresting us for no reason, and it's time for us to fight back," he said.


Ali said three of his brothers and a sister had been among 1,434 suspects taken into police custody. State television showed victims in hospital and burnt cars and shops. Of the 156 killed, 27 were women.


Xinjiang has long been a hotbed of ethnic tensions, fostered by a yawning economic gap between Uighurs and Han Chinese, government controls on religion and culture and in influx of Han Chinese migrants who now are the majority in most key cities.


Beijing has poured cash into exploiting Xinjiang's rich oil and gas deposits and consolidating its hold on a strategically vital frontierland that borders Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia, but Uighurs say migrant Han are the main beneficiaries.


Human rights groups have warned that a harsh crackdown on Uighurs in the wake of Sunday's violence could merely exacerbate the grievances that fuelled ethnic tensions.


Urumqi Communist Party boss Li Zhi defended the crackdown.


"It should be said that they were all violent elements who wielded clubs and smashed, looted, burned and even murdered at the scene," he told a news conference.


But he also said some may have been "swindled or deceived".


"If they engage only in minor crimes and looting, they will be released after undergoing education," he added.


A protester, a Uighur businessman who gave his name as Kabya, said the arrests in his neighbourhood had been indiscriminate.


"We do business here," he said. "But they came through here and arrested anybody they did not think looked right."


Earlier on Tuesday, Xinjiang's Communist Party boss Wang Lequan said that although Sunday's unrest had been quelled, "this struggle is far from over".


Xinjiang's state-run media quoted Wang as calling for officials to launch "a struggle against separatism".


But Human Rights Watch's Asia advocacy director Sophie Richardson called for an independent investigation.


Internet connections were still largely cut off in Xinjiang on Tuesday, but officials opened up some lines to allow foreign reporters to send stories and images.

Unrest spreading?

Some Xinjiang newspapers also carried graphic pictures of the violence, including corpses, at least one of which showed a woman whose throat had been slashed.


Despite heightened security, some unrest appeared to be spreading in the volatile region, where long-standing ethnic tensions periodically erupt into bloodshed.


Police dispersed around 200 people at the Id Kah mosque in Kashgar in southern Xinjiang on Monday evening, Xinhua said.


The report did not say if police used force but said checkpoints had been set up at crossroads between Kashgar airport and downtown.


Almost half of Xinjiang's 20 million people are Uighurs, while the population of Urumqi, which lies around 3,300 km (2,000 miles) west of Beijing, is mostly Han Chinese.


Chinese officials have already blamed the unrest on separatist groups abroad which it says want to create an independent homeland for Uighurs.


Exiled Uighur businesswoman and activist Rebiya Kadeer, blamed by Chinese state media for being behind the violence, denied having anything to do with it.


"These accusations are completely false," Kadeer said through an interpreter in Washington, where she now lives.


The White House said it was concerned about the deaths but it would be premature to speculate on the circumstances.


Date created : 2009-07-07