Banks of paramilitary police fanned out in the far-flung Chinese city of Urumqi on Wednesday to try to stifle unrest days after 156 people were killed in the region’s worst ethnic violence in decades.
Urumqi, capital of the north-western region of Xinjiang, imposed an overnight curfew on Tuesday after thousands of Han Chinese, armed with sticks, knives and metal bars, stormed through its streets demanding redress and sometimes extracting bloody vengeance on Muslim Uighurs for Sunday’s violence.
Many took to the streets again on Wednesday, and even with helicopters hovering overhead there were scuffles in a volatile crowd of about 1 000 as police seized apparent ringleaders, prompting cries of ”release them, release them”.
President Hu Jintao abandoned plans to attend a G8 summit in Italy, returning home to monitor developments in energy-rich Xinjiang, where 1 080 people were also wounded in rioting and 1 434 have been arrested since Sunday.
Financial markets again appeared unaffected and life was returning to the streets of Uighur neighbourhoods. But residents said night-time arrests were continuing and they were quietly preparing to defend against further Han attacks.
Urumqi airport was crowded with people anxious to leave, the official Xinhua news agency said. ”We fear Xinjiang is not safe any more,” said one passenger who refused to be identified.
Their fear was borne out downtown. In one street, two young boys were surrounded by an angry mob, with dozens trying to pull them down and grabbing at their hair. At one point they briefly turned on a journalist.
Volatile and swelling Han crowds protested against security forces seizing young Han men.
”Why are you catching Han Chinese? They are only trying to protect us,” said one woman in the crowd, bickering with police.
But the heavy security presence brought peace to central parts of the city, with armed personnel carriers standing by as helicopters hovered overhead.
Rumours swirled. A group of Uighur men said they were convinced two locals died in Tuesday’s confrontations and that there were many more deaths across the city.
A man in his 50s, who gave name as Mohammed Ali, said he had heard from neighbours and friends that two men had died and two had been seriously wounded.
”Now we are scared to go anywhere,” he said. ”Doing even simple things becomes frightening.”
‘Blood for blood incompatible with rule of law’
Police say Sunday’s clashes were triggered by a brawl between Uighurs and Han at a factory in south China prompted by a rumour that Uighurs had raped two women. Police have detained 15 people in connection with the factory brawl, including two suspected of spreading rumours on the internet.
”If a wrong is avenged with another wrong, there would be no end to it,” the state-owned English-language China Daily said in an editorial.
”Blood for blood is incompatible with the rule of law and will only lead to a vicious cycle of harm and revenge.”
Internet access in the city was blocked on Wednesday except in the business centre of one hotel for foreign reporters.
Along with Tibet, Xinjiang is one of the most politically sensitive regions in China. It is strategically located at the borders of Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, has abundant oil reserves and is China’s largest natural gas-producing region.
Xinjiang has long been a tightly controlled hotbed of ethnic tensions, fostered by an economic gap between many Uighurs and Han Chinese, government controls on religion and culture and an influx of Han migrants who now are the majority in most key cities, including Urumqi. There were attacks in the region before and during last year’s Summer Olympics in Beijing.
But controlling the anger on both sides of the ethnic divide will now make controlling Xinjiang, with its gas reserves and trade and energy ties to central Asia, all the more testing for the ruling Communist Party.
Russia put its support firmly behind China, saying the violence was a purely internal affair. — Reuters