Tuesday, July 7, 2009

BEIJING | Clashes spread Monday in China’s restive Muslim-majority Xinjiang region, claiming more than 150 lives in what appeared to be China’s worst ethnic violence in decades.

Chinese authorities said at least 156 people were killed, nearly 1,000 injured and hundreds arrested in confrontations that began Sunday between ethnic Uighurs and ethnic Han Chinese in Urumqi, the regional capital.

Xinhua, China’s state news agency, said police have arrested 1,434 suspects in connection with the violence, but it did not immediately give any further details Tuesday, the Associated Press reported.

In Urumqi, hundreds of paramilitary police in green camouflage uniforms marched Monday with shields, rifles, clubs and long bamboo poles and took control of the streets. Mobile-phone service and the social-networking site Twitter have been blocked, and Internet links have been cut or slowed down.

Reached by phone late Monday, a Han Chinese graduate student who would not give her name said the violence had stopped in the northern part of Urumqi, but still was going on in the south of the capital, where most of the rioting had occurred.

“I don’t feel safe going outside,” she said. “It was a mess [on Sunday], people running on the streets, shouting for everyone to hide.”

Omer Kanat, a Washington, D.C.-based vice president of the World Uyghur Congress, said there were unconfirmed reports that the violence has spread to three other cities in Xinjiang - Kashgar, Hotan and Aksu.

He said the death toll has reached 400.

Xinhua news agency said police dispersed several hundred people trying to gather at a mosque in Kashgar on Monday evening.

Uighurs, Muslim Turkic people, make up about 10 million of the 20 million people in Xinjiang, an oil- and mineral-rich autonomous region in China’s northwest. However, Urumqi, a city of 2.3 million, is now dominated by Han Chinese.

While China says its economic policies have brought new prosperity to ethnic minorities, some Uighurs claim that Chinese government policies are marginalizing their religion and culture and that Han Chinese are being encouraged to settle in Xinjiang in an effort to squeeze out natives.

Chinese state-run media portrayed the riots as foreign-orchestrated, planned by what it called the “separatist World Uyghur Congress,” which is based in Germany.

“The violence is … organized violent crime. It is instigated and directed from abroad and carried out by outlaws in the country,”said a government statement.

One possible catalyst was an earlier clash, on June 26, between Han Chinese and Uighurs at a toy factory in Guangdong province in which two Uighurs were killed.

The World Uyghur Congress issued a statement Monday saying that security forces had “used lethal force” to break up what it called a peaceful protest in response to the violence in Guangdong and rejected China’s claim that it had masterminded the riots.

Government officials said 261 vehicles were burned and 203 shops and 14 homes were destroyed in the clashes.

By midday Monday, 57 bodies had been recovered from the streets of Urumqi, while the rest of the people who died were pronounced dead at area hospitals, regional police Chief Liu Yaohua said at a press conference, according to the Xinhua agency.

Mr. Kanat of the World Uyghur Congress said there were unconfirmed reports that Chinese people were on the streets hunting Uighurs. He said two Uighur girls had been beheaded. The reports could not be independently confirmed.

Footage posted by Uighur exiles on YouTube showed what appeared to have started as a peaceful protest, with men and women marching, talking on cell phones and cheering.

Chinese state television, however, showed footage of protesters attacking and kicking people and of Han Chinese sitting dazed with blood pouring down their faces.

For many Chinese, the unrest brought back vivid reminders of riots in Tibet last year, in which Han Chinese were targeted by angry rioters in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. That unrest spread to surrounding ethnic-Tibetan areas and left two dozen people dead.

Chinese reached in Urumqi said authorities cut Internet service Monday morning. While mobile phone service was sporadically available in the capital, people there said they were having difficulty reaching other areas of Xinjiang.

The social-networking site Twitter was inaccessible across China as of midafternoon on Monday.

Liu Jing, 23, a student at Xinjiang University, said riots raged just outside the doors of her school.

“Outside of the university, it is a state of siege,” Ms. Liu said. “Every hundred yards or so there are soldiers patrolling, carrying long electric rods.”

It took three calls from Beijing to finally connect with Ms. Liu. She said her phone signal had been intermittent throughout the day Monday and that she had no access to the Internet.

She said authorities had told students at her university to remain at the school and not go outside unless there was an emergency. An important exam for seniors has been postponed, and the local government has called on people to remain in their homes if possible.

Xinjiang borders eight Central Asian nations. China considers some Uighur activists to be terrorists. Four Uighurs released from the detention facility for terrorism suspects at the U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were sent to Bermuda recently, and the U.S. is trying to send 13 others to Palau in the Pacific, arguing that they would face persecution if sent back to Xinjiang.

• Cassie Fleming contributed to this report from Washington.

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