Wednesday, April 2, 2008

After Tibet, Uighurs rise up in protest against China

China has accused Muslims in the nation's northwest of trying to start a rebellion, following what an exile group said were peaceful protests against injustices under Chinese rule.

The unrest occurred in China's Muslim-majority Xinjiang region last month, after Chinese authorities warned that "terrorists" based there were planning attacks on the Beijing Olympics and had tried to bomb a Beijing-bound plane.

In the latest event, extremist forces tried to incite an uprising in a marketplace in Khotan city on March 23, according to a statement from the local government posted on its website this week.

The Khotan protests have occurred as China has been trying to contain unrest on a much larger scale in neighbouring Tibet, a Buddhist region whose population similarly claim widespread repression under Chinese rule.

"A small number of elements... tried to incite a split, create disturbances in the market place and even trick the masses into an uprising," the statement said.

The statement said the people involved adhered to the "three evil forces," a Chinese expression that refers to separatism, religious extremism and terrorism.

"Our police immediately intervened to prevent this and are dealing with it in accordance with the law," added the statement.

Most of the population in Xinjiang, which borders Afghanistan and central Asia, are Muslim Turkic-speaking Uighurs, many of whom bridle at what they say have been 60 years of repressive communist Chinese rule.

Rights groups and Uighur exiles have alleged that China is trying to stoke fears about terror attacks in Xinjiang as an excuse to silence dissent and justify tight control there ahead of the Olympics in August.

In the Khotan unrest, an Uighur exile group said hundreds of people took to the streets on two occasions to protest over a local businessman who died in police custody and against a ban on women wearing traditional head scarves.

"The Uighurs began protesting after the killing of Mutallip Hajim, who had died in police custody," Alim Seytoff, head of the US-based World Uighur Congress said.

"The women were also protesting the ban on head scarves." The two protests included up to a total of 1,000 demonstrators, he said, adding that as many as 600 protesters had been detained.

Hajim, a wealthy jade trader and philanthropist, was taken into custody in Khotan in January, according to the US government-backed Radio Free Asia .

But his body was turned over to his family on March 3, with police instructing them to bury him immediately and inform no one of his death, it said.

Local police and the religious affairs bureau in Khotan, also known as Hetian, refused to comment on the protests or Hajim's case.

China initially raised the alarm over the alleged threat from Xinjiang on March 9 when it said a January raid on "terrorists" there had foiled a planned attack directed at the Olympics.

On the same day, it announced a 19-year-old Muslim woman had tried to bomb a Chinese Southern Airlines flight that had taken off from Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital, and was on its way to Beijing.

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