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What led to China's worst ethnic flare up

By B Raman
July 07, 2009 14:17 IST
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In a report disseminated on July 6, the state-controlled Xinhua news agency of China has admitted that normalcy has been only partially restored in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang province, which saw the outbreak of violent protests by Uighur students on July 5, who demanded the arrest and prosecution of the Han Chinese workers who attacked Uighur workers at a toy factory in Guangdong in southern China on June 25, killing two Uighurs. The Han Chinese had attacked the Uighurs following the circulation of a report through the Internet alleging that some Uighur workers had raped two Han Chinese women. According to the Chinese authorities, the report of the rape was found to be false.

According to Uighur exile sources, the protesting students carried the Chinese national flag in order to highlight that theirs was a human rights demand and that they had nothing to do with the Islamic movement of Eastern Turkestan and other Islamic fundamentalist groups. According to these sources, the protesters did not even shout "Allah is Great" in order not to give a religious colour to their protest.

The exiles allege that despite the peaceful nature of the protest, the Chinese security forces lost their nerve and attacked the protesters. Initially, they attacked them with electrically-charged batons. The protesters then went out of control and started attacking Han Chinese passers-by and shops. They also attacked the public transport system and set fire to a large number of buses and some vehicles of the security forces.

The Chinese authorities moved reinforcements of special police units in armoured personnel carriers into Urumqi. The exiles allege that these units indiscriminately fired on the protesters in many places in the city. In the clashes between the students and the security forces, which continued throughout the night of July 5, many were killed. Xinhua has admitted at least 140 fatalities.

The Xinhua report was based on a press briefing on the situation held by the Urumqi authorities on the afternoon of July 6. In the briefing, Liu Yaohua, the police chief of the Xinjiang province, stated as follows:

The death toll has risen to 140  and was still climbing. Fifty-seven bodies were retrieved from Urumqi's streets and lanes, while all the others were confirmed dead at hospitals.

At least 828 people were injured. The rioters set fire to 261 motor vehicles, including 190 buses,  10 taxis and two police cars.

A preliminary investigation showed 203 shops and 14 homes were destroyed in the riots.

The police have arrested several hundred in connection with the riots, including at least a dozen who were suspected of fanning the unrest.

The police are still searching for about 90 other key suspects in the city. "Police have tightened security in downtown Urumqi streets and at key institutions such as power and natural gas companies and TV stations to prevent large-scale riots."

More than 100 ethnic officials from adjacent areas have been transferred to Urumqi for interrogating the suspects according to law.

The World Uighur Congress has strongly denied Chinese allegations that it had instigated the violent incidents by disseminating through the Internet exaggerated accounts of the Guangdong incident. In a statement issued from Munich, it has stated as follows: "Instead of addressing the legitimate demands of the peaceful Uighur protesters, the Chinese authorities responded to quell the protest with the deployment of four kinds of police (regular police, anti-riot police, Special Police and the People's Armed Police). The Special Police and PAP used tear gas, automatic rifles and armoured vehicles to disperse the Uighur protesters. During the crackdown, some were shot to death, and some were beaten to death by the Chinese police. Some demonstrators were even crushed by armored vehicles near Xinjiang University, according to eyewitnesses."

While the Chinese authorities have admitted only 140 fatalities, Uighur exile sources allege that there were at least 600 fatalities as a result of the indiscriminate firing by the security forces.

On July 6, there were reports of protest demonstrations in other towns of Xinjiang too, but the violence has remained confined to Urumqi.

Till now, the local Chinese authorities in Urumqi have been blaming "ethnic separatists" for the riots and not jihadi fundamentalist elements.

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B Raman