- The Washington Times - Monday, July 6, 2009

BEIJING | Three people died in rioting in China’s restive far western Xinjiang region on Sunday, state media reported, in a confrontation that underscored the tense divide there between Han Chinese and the Uighur ethnic minority.

The official Xinhua news agency said rioters “illegally gathered in several downtown places and engaged in beating, smashing, looting and burning” in the regional capital, Urumqi.

The dead were “three ordinary people of the Han ethnic group,” Xinhua said. It did not say how they died, report the ethnicity of those involved in the unrest or specify the reasons behind it.

Other sources told Reuters that the clash involved Uighurs, many of whom are Muslim and resent cultural and religious controls imposed by China’s ruling Communist Party.

Dilxat Raxit, an advocate of Uighur independence exiled in Sweden, said the unrest was sparked by anger over a confrontation between Han Chinese and Uighur factory workers in far southern China in late June, in which two Uighurs died.

“It began as a peaceful assembly,” he said of the gathering in Urumqi. “There were thousands of people shouting to stop ethnic discrimination, demanding an explanation. This anger has been growing for a long time.”

Many Uighurs complain that they are marginalized economically and politically in their own land, which has rich mineral and natural-gas reserves.

An eyewitness in Urumqi, who requested anonymity, said the police eventually moved in and the confrontation turned violent.

Rioters overturned traffic rails and smashed buses until thousands of police and anti-riot troops swept through the city, using tear gas and high-pressure water hoses to disperse crowds.

“Now the whole city is on lockdown,” he said.

Alim Seytoff, general secretary of the Uyghur American Association, based in Washington, said the peaceful protest was led by students angry over the recent factory deaths.

“Urumqi is a tightly controlled city, but the students have access to all sorts of information on the Internet,” he said. “Now, I hear, the authorities have been going through university dorms to hunt down participants. … There will be a harsh crackdown, but the basic problems won’t disappear.”

The Chinese video Web site www.youku.com ran footage titled “Urumqi riot” that showed smoke rising from an expressway as a firetruck stopped at the scene.

Almost half of Xinjiang’s 20 million people are Uighurs. The population of Urumqi is mostly Han Chinese, and the city is under tight police security even in normal times.

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