Sunday, September 6, 2009

URUMQI, China | Chinese leaders bowed to public demands and fired the top official of a western city wracked by communal violence and a bizarre string of needle attacks, hoping to calm uneasy mobs and end protests that percolated for a third day Saturday.

The removal of Urumqi’s Communist Party Secretary Li Zhi came amid reports of police again dispersing crowds outside Urumqi’s government offices using tear gas, and more unconfirmed reports of needle attacks, including one on an 11-year-old boy in a downtown square.

The city’s chief prosecutor announced further details about four people arrested in the attacks, but offered little to back up the government’s claims that they were an organized campaign to spread terror.

Protesters marched by the thousands Thursday and Friday demanding the resignation of Mr. Li and his boss, Xinjiang party secretary Wang Lequan, for failing to provide adequate public safety in the city. Also fired was the police chief of Xinjiang, China’s westernmost region that abuts Central Asia and whose capital is Urumqi.

An Urumqi government spokeswoman and the official Xinhua News Agency gave no reasons in announcing the changes. But July’s riot was the worst communal violence in more than a decade in Xinjiang - where Uighur separatists have waged a sporadically violent campaign for a homeland. The renewed protests this week underscored the difficulties authorities were having in reasserting control.

The firing may also help quash calls to dismiss Mr. Wang - a member of the country’s ruling Politburo and an ally of President Hu Jintao.

Mr. Li, a 58-year-old career official in Xinjiang, played a visible role during the July violence and recent protests. In July, he climbed atop a car with a megaphone and urged an angry crowd of Han Chinese to show their patriotism by fighting separatists but not ordinary Uighurs.

On Thursday, when more than 10,000 people protested through the city, Mr. Li and Mr. Wang separately waded into crowds to meet with protesters to defuse tensions, only to be greeted with shouts to “step down.”

“Do I not know that I should protect my brothers and sisters?” Mr. Li told them, according to footage aired on Urumqi’s TV station and recounted by a local newspaper editor.

Urumqi’s prosecutor said among the 21 suspects in custody, all of them Uighurs, two jabbed a taxi driver with a heroin-filled syringe to steal $105 to buy drugs.

Overall, a show of force by thousands of troops on patrols restored calm to much of the city.

More than 500 people have sought treatment for stabbings, though only about 100 showed signs of having been pricked, according to state media reports. Members of a visiting People’s Liberation Army medical team said they conducted checks on 22 patients who showed clear signs of having been stabbed and found no indication that radioactive or biochemical substances had been used in any of the attacks.

Tests were still being conducted for HIV, hepatitis and sexually transmitted diseases, and the results will be made public at a time to be determined by the Xinjiang government, said Qian Jun, one of the team’s leaders.

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