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Uneasy calm returns to Urumqi after sacking of Chinese officials

Video by Nicholas RUSHWORTH


Latest update : 2009-09-06

The city of Urumqi has settled down after Chinese authorities sacked two local officials on Saturday. The move followed days of ethnic unrest sparked by an apparent spate of syringe attacks, which the Han Chinese blamed on Uighur separatists.

REUTERS - Residents of China’s far western city of Urumqi, in turmoil over a spate of needle attacks, expressed grudging satisfaction that two high officials were fired as the city recovered from angry protests.


Elderly residents practiced taichi in front of rows of military trucks in People’s Square, where on Thursday tens of thousands of Han Chinese gathered to call for the resignation of provincial party secretary Wang Lizhi, saying he had failed to ensure their security.


New information cast doubt on government warnings that separatists wielding syringes had attacked hundreds of residents.


On Saturday, two officials—Li Zhi, the city party secretary, and the regional chief of police—were sacked. The Xinhua news agency did not give a reason, but both had been in office on July 5, when 197 people, mostly majority Han Chinese, died in deadly rioting by Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim group native to the region.


“I support this move. I think the stability of Xinjiang should be paramount,” said a Han Chinese woman, surnamed Gao.


Han Chinese took to the streets this week in fear and anger, saying the government had failed to prosecute the rioters and had also failed to protect their safety, as rumours of needle attacks swirled around a city that has been cut off from the Internet and has had limited phone access for two months.


“Li Zhi was fired. People aren’t going to be satisfied with this alone,” said one food seller, who declined to give his name.


The city’s procurator said four Uighurs had been indicted for “endangering public security” in connection with the needle attacks, and four others were to be formally arrested.


Police have detained 25 Uighurs over the attacks.


Of those indicted, two were heroin addicts who used a syringe to rob a taxi driver, and a third addict used a syringe to fight off police trying to arrest him. The fourth stuck a needle into a fruit seller’s buttock.


None of the cases, or the charges, seemed to support government assertions that the needle attacks were coordinated by separatists bound on fomenting unrest.


Government reports said 513 people had lodged reports of needle attacks as of Sept. 4, but only 106 showed any physical signs. Doctors said 22 were being monitored for signs of infection, but dismissed as unlikely the possibility that any would have gotten AIDS or other diseases.


Even the official Xinhua news agency acknowledged late on Saturday that “some of those who said they had been stabbed actually suffered from mosquitoes’ stings or other psychogenic reasons.”


Five people died in the protests on Thursday, and vigilante mobs of Han Chinese had tried to break through paramilitary barricades into Uighur neighbourhoods on Friday.


Troops used tear gas on Friday and Saturday to disperse demonstrators seeking to approach the People’s Square, site of the regional government, and the city government.

Date created : 2009-09-06