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Exodus from Urumqi as authorities up death toll

Video by Olivia SALAZAR WINSPEAR

Text by NEWS WIRES

Latest update : 2009-07-11

Thousands tried to flee the city of Urumqi in China's Xinjiang province, as Chinese authorities raised the death toll from ethnic violence to more than 180. Many mosques had been ordered shut on Friday, the Muslim day of prayer.

AFP - Thousands of people Friday tried to flee Urumqi in China's Xinjiang region after deadly ethnic unrest with many mosques ordered shut for the Muslim day of prayer.
  
The exodus came as the authorities raised the toll from the violence that erupted on Sunday to more than 180 in the midst of growing international anger, especially in the Islamic world, at the plight of Xinjiang's Uighurs.
  


Authorities said they had put on extra bus services out of the regional capital Urumqi, but demand outstripped seats and scalpers told AFP they were charging up to five times the normal price for tickets.
  
"It is just too risky to stay here. We are scared of the violence," said Xu Qiugen, a 23-year-old construction worker from central China who had been living in Urumqi for five years and had bought a bus ticket out with his wife.
  
The unrest began when thousands of Muslim Uighurs, who have long complained about repression under Chinese rule, took to the streets to protest and security forces moved in to clamp down.
  
The Chinese government said 184 were killed with more than 1,000 others injured as Uighurs attacked people from China's dominant Han ethnic group, with most of those killed Han Chinese.
  
But it was anger at the plight of the Uighurs that drew howls of protest from around the world on Friday with rallies in several cities, including Ankara, Berlin, Canberra and Istanbul.
  
Uighurs are Turkic speakers and Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was the most outspoken for their cause, going as far as to label the events in Xinjiang "a kind of genocide."
  
Uighur exiles claim China's security forces over-reacted to peaceful protests and used deadly force.
  
The leader of the exiled community, Washington-based Rebiya Kadeer, cited unconfirmed reports Friday that the death toll "is up to 1,000, or some say 3,000" in violence across the region, and estimated that another 5,000 people had been imprisoned.
  
In Urumqi earlier this week tensions mounted as thousands of Han Chinese took to the streets wielding knives, poles, meat cleavers and other makeshift weapons vowing vengeance against the Uighurs.
  
AFP witnessed Han Chinese mobs assaulting two Uighurs in separate attacks, and Uighurs alleged many other beatings took place, but the extent of the violence was unclear.
  
With ethnic tensions still at flashpoint and security forces saturating the city, many mosques were ordered shut for weekly prayers.
  
"The government said there would be no Friday prayers," said a Uighur man named Tursun outside the Hantagri mosque, one of the oldest in the city, as about 100 police carrying machine guns and batons stood guard.
  
"There's nothing we can do... the government is afraid that people will use religion to support the three forces."
  
He was referring to a Chinese government term referring to extremism, separatism and terrorism -- forces it says are seeking to split Xinjiang from the rest of the country.
  
Xinjiang makes up one-sixth of China's territory and it crosses into Central Asia, sharing borders with eight countries including Afghanistan and Pakistan.
  
Eight million Uighurs, who share more links with their Central Asian neighbours than the Han Chinese, make up just under half of Xinjiang's population.
  
Heavy security was also in force throughout the historic city of Kashgar, about 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) from Urumqi where smaller-scale ethnic unrest flared last year, AFP journalists witnessed.
  
Foreign journalists were ordered out of the city, preventing them from reporting events after exiled Uighur leaders said this week that Chinese security forces may have killed 100 people there.
  
"All foreign journalists should leave for their own safety," Chen Li, a press official with the Kashgar government, told AFP.
  
At Urumqi's Bayi bus station, mainly a hub for travel to other parts of China rather than within Xinjiang, around 10,000 people were trying to leave the city, double the normal number, a top official named Adili told AFP.
  
Queues at the bus station had as many as 300 people in them on Friday morning, with many of them Han but also some Uighurs.
  
Scalpers moved fast to take advantage of the extra demand.
  
One man, who only gave his surname as Wang, was selling train tickets for Kashgar city, about 1,000 kilometres away, for 500 yuan (73 dollars), well above the face price of about 100 yuan.
  
"A lot of people are leaving because they are afraid. It's really hard to buy tickets," Wang told AFP.

Date created : 2009-07-11

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