At least 156 people were killed when Muslim Uighurs rioted in the Chinese region of Xinjiang in some of the deadliest ethnic unrest to hit the country in decades.
The violence in the regional capital Urumqi involved thousands of people and triggered an enormous security crackdown across Xinjiang, where Uighurs have long complained of repressive Chinese rule.
“People are staying inside, the best thing for you is to go back to your hotel, that will be safe,” a businessman told AFP near Urumqi’s bazaar district, the scene of much of the violence.
In a sign tensions were still running high, state media reported that police had dispersed more than 200 “rioters” on Monday evening as they gathered at the main mosque in Kashgar, a city in western Xinjiang on the ancient Silk Road.
Police believed people were “trying to organise more unrest” in other cities in the vast mountainous and desert region that borders Central Asia, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
Xinhua said more than 700 people had been arrested for involvement in Sunday’s riots, which authorities blamed on Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking people who have closer cultural links to regional neighbours than the Han Chinese.
Police ‘fired indiscriminately’ at protesters
Exiled Uighur groups accused Chinese security forces of over-reacting to peaceful protests and firing indiscriminately on crowds.
The deadly unrest drew attention around the world, with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon leading calls for restraint, a sentiment echoed by Britain and the United States.
“We are deeply concerned over reports of many deaths and injuries from violence in Urumqi in western China,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
“We call on all in Xinjiang to exercise restraint,” Gibbs said in a statement.
Xinjiang communist party official Li Yi said the death toll had risen to 156 — 129 men and 27 women — and 1,080 injured, up from the previous figure of at least 140 dead and 828 injured, Xinhua reported.
“At present, the situation is still seriously complicated, Xinjiang will prevent the situation from spreading to other areas using the most powerful measures and methods, and will safeguard regional stability,” China News Service quoted Nur Bekri, chairman of the Xinjiang region, as saying earlier.
Dramatic footage broadcast of the unrest by the state-run CCTV network showed men turning over a police car and smashing its windows, a woman being kicked as she lay on the ground and buses and other vehicles aflame.
White House ‘deeply concerned’ over violence
Han Chinese businesspeople told AFP there were around 3,000 Uighur protesters, a figure repeated by exiled Uighur groups.
“The Uighurs attacked motorists with rocks,” said one Han woman who saw the riot unfold from the 11th floor of a local hospital.
“They just attacked the Han people.”
The regional government blamed Rebiya Kadeer, the Uighurs’ leader living in exile in the United States, for orchestrating the unrest.
But Kadeer and other Uighur exiles blamed the Chinese authorities.
“They randomly fired on men and women,” Asgar Can, vice-president of the World Uighur Congress — the main international organisation representing the minority — told AFP in Berlin.
“In addition, the police pooled their vehicles together in certain parts of the city and then began to run demonstrators over,” Can said.
Curfew in place, area sealed off
Alim Seytoff, general secretary of the Uighur American Association, told AFP in Washington the Uighurs were protesting over an ethnically charged brawl late last month at a factory in southern China that left two Uighurs dead.
Authorities in Urumqi deployed more than 20,000 police, troop and firefighters to quell the unrest, Xinhua said, quoting a police source.
Riot police and other security forces armed with machine guns and carrying shields were seen in Urumqi on Monday, preventing further protests, according to an AFP reporter here.
Truckloads of German Shepherd police dogs were also brought in and large swathes of the Muslim quarter of the city were sealed off, the reporter said.
Police said a curfew would be put in place from 8:00 pm local time.
Many of Xinjiang’s roughly eight million Uighurs say they suffer political, cultural and religious persecution. Like in Tibet, they also complain about Han Chinese moving into the area in large numbers.
The unrest echoed deadly violence in Buddhist Tibet in March last year when Tibetans stormed through the streets of the region’s capital, Lhasa, attacking Han Chinese in frustration at what they claimed was repressive Chinese rule.