- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 5, 2009

URUMQI, China | China’s security chief blamed Muslim separatists Friday for a string of bizarre needle attacks that drew thousands of angry protesters into the streets as officials disclosed that five people were killed and 14 injured during demonstrations in this restive city.

Police fired tear gas to break up continuing protests by thousands of Han Chinese, the country’s majority ethnic group, underscoring how unsettled Urumqi remains despite a massive security crackdown after ethnic rioting in July that left 197 people dead.

The Xinjiang region, of which Urumqi is the capital, has for decades faced a simmering separatist movement by Uighurs, a largely Muslim ethnic group.

Deputy Mayor Zhang Hong said the most recent deaths all came Thursday, the first day of the demonstrations. Mr. Zhang said two of those killed were “innocent,” but gave no other details about their identities or the circumstances of their deaths, other than saying they occurred in “small-scale clashes.” He said authorities were still investigating the other three deaths.

Earlier Friday, Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu said the same Muslim separatists that Beijing blames for the July 5 ethnic rioting also orchestrated the syringe attacks.

“The needle stabbing incident is a continuation of the ‘7-5’ incident, and it’s plotted by unlawful elements and instigated by ethnic separatist forces,” Mr. Meng said in comments broadcast on nationwide television. “Their purpose is to damage ethnic unity.”

Mr. Meng, who was dispatched to Urumqi to direct police action, provided no evidence to back up his charges, nor has the government substantiated accusations that separatists incited July’s violence. By most accounts, the riot started after police confronted protesters from the Muslim Uighur ethnic group, who then attacked Han Chinese in the area. Days later, Han vigilantes swept through Uighur neighborhoods to retaliate.

Mr. Zhang said 21 people were detained on suspicion of carrying out the needle attacks and four indicted. He said all of those held were Uighurs, while most of the victims were Han.

Mr. Meng’s comments marked the first time authorities suggested Uighur separatists were involved in the stabbings, which have fed rumors and fear in the city for days. The syringe attacks were first publicly reported earlier this week.

Local police said hospitals in Urumqi were treating 531 people who believed they were attacked by hypodermic needles, 55 more than previously reported, the official Xinhua News Agency said. About 106 showed obvious signs of needle attacks.

So far, none of those stabbed showed any signs of infection or poisoning, state media has said. Infection by AIDS is a concern given Xinjiang’s high rate of HIV, which is spread by needle-sharing among drug users.

None of the estimated 160 people treated at the Urumqi Medical College Hospital showed symptoms of AIDS or hepatitis, said Lin Fangmu, director at the preventative medicine department. The most common symptom they displayed was “mainly just fear, terror,” he said.

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