Chinese authorities have ordered mosques in the western city of Urumqi to close on Friday, the main Muslim day of prayer, to prevent any fresh outbreak of ethnic violence.
Five days after clashes that left 156 people dead according to authorities, Chinese security forces remain on the alert in Xinjiang’s restive regional capital, Urumqi.
Chinese authorities have asked mosques not to open on the Muslim main day of prayer for fear large gatherings could be difficult to control.
Nevertheless, on Friday, Chinese riot police broke up a small demonstration by Uighurs leaving Friday prayers in a Muslim Uighur neighbourhood, arresting five or six who were taken away, their hands above their heads.
A crowd of several hundred gathered near the White Mosque, along with hundreds of riot police with submachine guns, as armoured police vehicles blocked roads around the building. Authorities reportedly allowed access to the mosque in an apparent bid to minimise ethnic tension.
China’s President Hu Jintao described the recent riots as a "serious violent crime elaborately planned and organised by 'three forces' at home and abroad".
"Three forces" is a term China uses to refer to religious extremists, separatists and terrorists it says menace Xinjiang.
The Uighur Muslim minority, which repeatedly complains of religious oppression in atheist China, were told to pray at home. According to FRANCE 24’s Henry Morton, reporting from Urumqi, government-appointed imams are expected to respect orders to close the mosques.
“I did not notice much discontent among the Uighurs I spoke to early this morning,” said Morton, “They said they understood that there was a security concern, though they are upset they cannot go and pray.”
Chinese authorities have deployed extra police and army troops in a bid to stem the recent outbreak of violence between the Uighurs and China’s dominant Han ethnic group.
Despite the ban, mosques frequented by Hui, a Muslim group akin to Han Chinese, opened their doors on Friday after crowds of a few hundred worshippers began shouting.
The quiet streets of Urumqi
Calm has returned to the streets of Urumqi, but the afternoon prayers will be a test of the government's ability to contain Uighur anger after Han Chinese attacked Uighur neighbourhoods on Tuesday.
Those attacks were in revenge for the deaths of 156 people in Uighur rioting on Sunday, the region's worst ethnic violence in decades.
“The restive city is returning to normal except in the centre where Uighurs live en masse,” said Morton, “There is a lot less tension though the Uighurs remain very fearful,” adding that Uighur residents were very careful in commenting on the situation.
Meanwhile, thousands of people flooded Urumqi’s main bus and train stations on Friday, apparently feeing the violence.
"I am just going home for a while to let things calm down," a woman who gave her surname as Li told AFP, at the city's main Bayi bus station.
President Hu Jintao, who rushed back from the G8 summit in Italy to tackle the nation's worst ethnic conflict for decades, has said maintaining social stability in the energy-rich region was the "most urgent task".
"The planners of the incident, the organisers, key members and the serious violent criminals must be severely punished," Chinese leaders have said.
On Wednesday, local party leaders in Urumqi had warned that people involved in any killings would be sentenced to death, and earlier announced that more than 1,400 people had been arrested for their involvement in the unrest.
But with unrest exploding in Tibet less than 18 months ago, analysts say the recent clashes in Xinjiang have no doubt sparked debates on minority politics within the secretive Chinese regime.
Uighurs routinely complain they are denied certain religious rights and have been left behind economically as Han Chinese dominate development opportunities.
Date created : 2009-07-10