Wednesday, July 8, 2009

China’s Urumqi city in chaos as mobs vow revenge

Police on Tuesday fired tear gas to disperse thousands of Han Chinese protesters armed with makeshift weapons and vowing revenge, as chaos gripped this flashpoint city riven by ethnic tensions, AFP reported.

Authorities ordered a night curfew and thousands of heavily armed police deployed across Urumqi, the capital of China’s remote northwest Xinjiang region.

But tensions spiked dramatically following weekend clashes that claimed at least 156 lives.

Authorities said they had arrested 1,434 suspects, accusing them of murder, assault, looting and burning during attacks by Muslim Uighurs against the Han, China’s dominant ethnic group who are seen in Xinjiang as oppressors.

But despite the security clampdown involving police with submachine guns, shotguns and batons, mobs of Han Chinese marched through Urumqi — with many wielding bricks, chains and poles and bent on reprisals against Uighurs.

‘The Uighurs came to our area to smash things, now we are going to their area to beat them,’ one protester, who was carrying a metal pipe, told AFP.

Dong Sun, a 19-year-old leader of one mob, expressed similar fury. ‘There are more of us,’ he said in reference to the number of Han Chinese versus Uighurs. ‘It is time we looked after ourselves instead of waiting for the government.’

Police repeatedly fired volleys of tear gas, but many of the demonstrators refused to yield ground despite their eyes streaming and their throats welling with pain, an AFP reporter witnessed.

By late afternoon there were no reports of deaths or injuries in Tuesday’s unrest. But mobs continued to march through the streets.

Meanwhile, authorities confirmed they had cut off Internet access in parts of Urumqi in an attempt to control the flow of information.

‘We cut Internet connection in some areas of Urumqi in order to quench the riot quickly and prevent violence from spreading to other places,’ the city’s top Communist Party official, Li Zhi, told state media.

But the authorities’ efforts to impose a blackout have been stymied by a flood of pictures, videos and eyewitness updates appearing on popular websites such as Twitter, YouTube and Flickr.

Authorities also reported that police dispersed ‘more than 200 rioters’ who gathered Monday night outside the main mosque in Kashgar, another city in Xinjiang about 1,050 kilometres southwest of Urumqi.

Police believed people were ‘trying to organise more unrest’ in other cities across Xinjiang, a vast mountainous and desert region that borders Central Asia, according to Xinhua.

Sunday’s unrest saw thousands of Muslim Uighurs take to the streets, with state television showing protesters attacking Han Chinese in scenes reminiscent of last year’s violence in Tibet.

China’s eight million Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking people who have long complained about the influx of Han Chinese into what they regard as their homeland, as well as political and cultural repression.

Exiled Uighur groups have sought to lay the blame for Sunday’s violence on Chinese authorities, saying the protests were peaceful until Chinese security forces over-reacted and fired indiscriminately on crowds.

China has accused exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer of masterminding the violence, which also left more than 1,000 injured, but she has denied the accusations and called on Monday for an international probe into the violence.

‘We hope that the United Nations, the United States and the European Union will send teams to investigate what really took place in Xinjiang,’ Kadeer told reporters in Washington, urging a forceful response from the White House.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, in a brief statement issued from Moscow during US President Barack Obama’s visit there, said the United States was ‘deeply concerned’ about the reports of deaths in Urumqi.

The statement called for ‘all in Xinjiang to exercise restraint.’ The identities of those killed and injured in the riots remained unclear on Tuesday. Chinese authorities have not said how many were Han Chinese or Uighur.

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