Tuesday, July 7, 2009

China Locks Down Restive Region After Deadly Clashes

URUMQI, China — The Chinese government locked down this regional capital of 2.3 million people and other cities across its western desert region on Monday and early Tuesday, imposing curfews, cutting off cellphone and Internet services and sending armed police officers into neighborhoods after clashes erupted here on Sunday evening between Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese. The fighting left at least 156 people dead and more than 1,000 injured, according to the state news agency.

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Nir Elias/Reuters

People who were injured in ethnic riots rested in a city hospital on Monday during a government tour for the media. More Photos »

But hundreds of Uighur protesters defied the police again on Tuesday morning, crashing a state-run tour of the riot scene for foreign and Chinese journalists. A wailing crowd of women, joined later by scores of Uighur men, marched down a wide avenue with raised fists and tearfully demanded that the police release Uighur men who they said had been seized from their homes after the violence. Some women waved the identification cards of men who had been detained.

As journalists watched, the demonstrators smashed the windshield of a police car and several police officers drew their pistols before the entire crowd was encircled by officers and paramilitary troops in riot gear.

“A lot of ordinary people were taken away by the police,” a protester named Qimanguili, a 13-year-old girl clad in a white T-shirt and a black headscarf, said, crying. She said her 19-year-old brother had been taken away by police officers on Monday, long after the riots had ended.

The confrontation later ebbed to a tense standoff between about 100 protesters, mostly women, some carrying infants, and riot police in black body armor and helmets, tear-gas launchers at the ready, in a Uighur neighborhood pocked with burned-out homes and an automobile sales lot torched during the Sunday riots.

The fighting on Sunday was the deadliest episode of ethnic violence in China in decades. The bloodshed here, along with the Tibetan uprising last year, shows the extent of racial hostility that still pervades much of western China, fueled partly by economic disparity and by government attempts to restrict religious and political activity by minority groups.

The rioting, which began as a peaceful protest calling for a full government inquiry into an earlier brawl between Uighurs and Han Chinese at a factory in southern China, took place in the heart of Xinjiang, an oil-rich desert region where Uighurs are the largest ethnic group but are ruled by the Han, the dominant ethnic group in the country.

Protests spread Monday to the heavily guarded town of Kashgar, on China’s western border, as 200 to 300 people chanting “God is great” and “Release the people” confronted riot police officers about 5:30 p.m. in front of the city’s yellow-walled Id Kah Mosque, the largest mosque in China. They quickly dispersed when officers began arresting people, one resident said.

Internet social platforms and chat programs appeared to have unified Uighurs in anger over the way Chinese officials had handled the earlier brawl, which took place in late June thousands of miles away in Shaoguan, Guangdong Province. There, Han workers rampaged through a Uighur dormitory, killing at least two Uighurs and injuring many others, according to the state news agency, Xinhua. Police officers later arrested a resentful former factory worker who had ignited the fight by spreading a rumor that six Uighur men had raped two Han women at the site, Xinhua reported.

But photographs that appeared online after the battle showed people standing around a pile of corpses, leading many Uighurs to believe that the government was playing down the number of dead Uighurs. One Uighur student said the photographs began showing up on many Web sites about one week ago. Government censors repeatedly tried to delete them, but to no avail, he said.

“Uighurs posted it again and again in order to let more people know the truth, because how painful is it that the government does bald-faced injustice to Uighur people?” said the student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from the government.

A call for protests spread on Web sites and QQ, the most popular instant-messaging program in China, despite government efforts to block online discussion of the feud.

By Tuesday morning, more than 36 hours after the start of the protest, the police had detained more than 1,400 suspects, according to Xinhua. More than 200 shops and 14 homes had been destroyed in Urumqi, and 261 motor vehicles, mostly buses, had been burned, Xinhua reported, citing Liu Yaohua, the regional police chief.

Police officers operated checkpoints on roads throughout Xinjiang on Monday. People at major hotels said they had no Internet access. Most people in the city could not use cellphones.

At the local airport, five scrawny, young men wearing black, bulletproof vests and helmets stood outside the terminal, holding batons. The roadways leading into the city center were empty early on Tuesday, except for parked squad cars and clusters of armored personnel carriers and olive military trucks brimming with paramilitary troops. An all-night curfew had been imposed.Michael Wines, Jonathan Ansfield and Xiyun Yang contributed reporting from Beijing, and David Barboza from Shanghai. Huang Yuanxi contributed research from Beijing, and Chen Yang from Shanghi

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