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Five killed in Urumqi protest over syringe attacks

Video by Steven JIANG


Latest update : 2009-09-05

Five people were killed during violent protests in the western city of Urumqi as tensions between the Han Chinese and Uighur communities flared over a spate of syringe attacks instigated by "ethnic separatists", according to Chinese officials.

AFP - Five people died in massive protests that were sparked in the restive Chinese city of Urumqi by syringe attacks the government blamed on "ethnic separatist forces," officials said Friday.

The protests began on Wednesday and continued through to Friday in the capital of the northwestern region of Xinjiang, where ethnic violence in July between mainly Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese left nearly 200 people dead.

After a tense two-month lull, fresh protests hit the city of 1.8 million after reports that hundreds of people -- Han Chinese and Uighurs -- had been stabbed with syringes since mid-August.

The five died on Thursday in mass demonstrations, with many protesters blaming the regional government for failing to protect them in the face of the syringe attacks.

"On Thursday, 14 people were injured and sent to hospital and five people were killed in the incidents, including two innocent people," Zhang Hong, vice-mayor of Urumqi, told reporters.

He declined to say what he meant by "innocent" and gave no further breakdown of the dead.

There were no deaths in Friday's protests, he said.

The state Xinhua news agency quoted Zhang as saying the syringe attackers were Uighurs, while Beijing's public security minister, Meng Jianzhu, was quoted saying the assaults were "instigated by ethnic separatist forces."

Meng, who rushed to Urumqi on Friday to attempt to defuse tension, said those responsible were trying to "undermine ethnic unity," he was quoted saying by Xinhua, adding that it was a continuation of the July violence.

State media, quoting police, said a total of 531 people had sought treatment in hospital after being stabbed with syringes in Urumqi since mid-August. But the report noted that only 106 of them had "obvious signs of needle attacks."

No one had been infected or poisoned in the assaults, Xinhua reported, and it remained unclear what the syringes contained, if anything.

Twenty-one people have been detained over the syringe attacks.

After the mass demonstrations on Thursday, thousands of security forces were deployed Friday to lock down Urumqi as new protests erupted.

At one demonstration witnessed by an AFP reporter Friday, about 1,000 people threw plastic bottles at a similar number of police near People's Square, where the main demonstrations took place a day earlier.

The crowd repeatedly scuffled with police, shouting "Release him! Release him!" whenever they tried to subdue a protester who had challenged them.

Hundreds of regular and armed police reinforcements rushed to the scene and eventually dispersed the crowd about an hour later.

Xinhua later reported that police had used tear gas to break up two other protests. One man in his 20s was injured and taken to hospital, it said.

A "number of other small-scale confrontations" took place throughout the day, Xinhua added.

Meanwhile, the syringe attacks appeared to be continuing.

"He was really tall, he was a Uighur for sure. But before I could get a good look at him, he ran off," Liu Yan, a 21-year-old Han woman, told AFP Friday, revealing a pinprick wound on her hand.

Many of the victims have blamed Uighurs.

On Thursday and again on Friday, protesters called for the resignation of regional Communist party boss Wang Lequan, a close ally of President Hu Jintao. Wang has called for calm and urged residents to show restraint.

Across Urumqi, armed police in riot gear were stationed at key points and erected barricades to block major roads and traffic was cut off in several areas.

Some shops and banks were open, but at least two key mosques were closed for Friday prayers as Muslims observed Ramadan.

A group of middle-aged Uighur men told AFP they were unconvinced that Uighurs were to blame for the syringe attacks.

"That is what the government and the newspapers are saying, but we are not clear. None of us has seen it," said one of them, who identified himself only as Mehmet.

Uighurs say the July 5 riots occurred after Urumqi police tried to forcibly break up a peaceful protest over a brawl involving factory workers in southern China that state media said left two Uighurs dead.

Uighurs have long complained of repression by China.

Beijing however has accused exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer, who lives in the United States, of orchestrating the unrest.

Date created : 2009-09-04