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04 Sep 2009 15:41
Security forces in far-west China’s strife-hit city of Urumqi used tear gas to break up fresh protests on Friday, as thousands of Han Chinese demanded better security after a reported spate of attacks with syringes.
The protesters massed in the streets in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang region, for a second day to protest that authorities were too slow to punish Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim people native to the energy-rich region, for deadly riots on July 5.
Han Chinese residents also said they were the targets of mysterious attacks with syringes.
Police vans patrolled streets with loudspeakers, telling people to go home, and used tear gas to disperse some of the angry gatherings. But with schools closed and bus routes through the city interrupted by road blocks, many in the crowds had little to do but mill about and break off into brief protests.
“The main thing is, nobody here feels secure any more,” said Zhen Guibin, a Han Chinese.
The government has banned “unlicensed marches, demonstrations and mass protests” and will disperse or detain those who disobey, the official Xinhua news agency said.
Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu visited Urumqi to urge a return to stability, meeting senior government officials, riot police as well as ordinary people, state television showed.
He repeated government accusations that separatists were trying to stir up instability by planning the syringe attacks.
“Maintaining stability is the central task of overriding importance in Xinjiang at the present time,” Xinhua quoted him as saying, vowing punishment for those involved in violence or “undermining ethnic unity”.
During Thursday’s protests, crowds called for regional Communist Party boss Wang Lequan to resign.
The main evening television news showed Wang, who has held the region’s most powerful position for 14 years, grimly taking notes during a meeting held by Meng.
Syringe attack warnings
Alarm spread in the city after government text messages a week ago warned of attacks with syringes.
“These Uighurs have been stabbing us with needles,” said a man trying to push through barriers sealing off a Uighur neighbourhood. “We need to take care of the problem.”
Angry crowds confronted paramilitary troops and police at intersections, demanding “more rights for Han people”.
A group of young Han Chinese men unfurled a Chinese flag and tried to lead a march to People’s Square shouting “safety”. Police snatched away the flag, but the crowd continued shouting.
The July 5 protest by Uighurs gave way to a spree of violence across the city in which 197 people were killed, most of them Han Chinese. Two days later, Han Chinese attacked Uighur neighbourhoods, demanding revenge.
Dilxat Raxit, a spokesperson for the exiled World Uyghur Congress, said pressure should be put on Beijing to open talks with Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur leader who lives in the United States and who China accused of masterminding the July unrest.
She has denied the charges.
“The Chinese have never been told to respect the Uighur people,” he said by telephone. “Uighurs have no feeling of security, not even at home.”
Urumqi’s Communist Party boss Li Zhi said the stabbings were part of a plot by separatists to sow conflict, Xinhua said.
“The goal was to create ethnic division and stir up ethnic antagonism in a bid to overturn social order, split the motherland and split the Chinese nation,” he said in a speech.
China says Uighurs campaigning for independence are allied with Islamist militants in the region. Deadly bomb attacks have occasionally hit government targets in Xinjiang.
Xinjiang’s population is divided mainly between Uighurs, long the region’s majority group, and Han Chinese, many of whom moved there in recent decades. Most Urumqi residents are Han.
“One Chinese ethnicity”
The Xinjiang government, apparently trying to calm tempers, announced on Thursday that 196 suspects have been charged over the July riot. Fifty-one were indicted and will face prosecution.
Some Han Chinese residents were unimpressed.
“I think the government has been way too lax towards the Uighurs,” said a Han shop owner who identified himself as Zhang.
“This policy has got to change. We shouldn’t have all these minorities. We should only have one Chinese ethnicity.”
Uighur residents said they were the victims of panic.
“There have been many Uighurs beaten up,” said Arwa Quli, a Uighur woman who paused on her way to work to watch the crowds.
“If you just brush against someone, they might think that you tried to stab them.”
Urumqi hospitals are treating 531 victims of syringe stabbings, Xinhua said, with 106 of them “showing obvious signs of needle attacks.”
Rumours of Aids patients attacking people with hypodermic needles have previously rattled parts of China, but were later shown to be unfounded.—Reuters
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