More Than 150 Killed in Western China in Struggle Between Muslim Uighurs and Police

More than 150 people have been killed in rioting in China's northwestern Xinjiang region, with the government blaming exiled separatists for the traditionally Muslim area's worst case of unrest in years.
By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 7, 2009

URUMQI, China, July 7 -- Clashes between Muslim Uighur protesters and security forces have killed at least 156 people in China's far west, state media said Monday, in what appears to be one of this country's bloodiest outbreaks of violence in recent history.

The capital of China's Xinjiang region, Urumqi, was under heavy guard after a crowd of rioters, estimated to number more than 1,000 and armed with knives and sticks, faced off against police in the city's main bazaar on Sunday, according to witnesses. As word of the fighting spread, smaller incidents of retaliatory violence erupted across Urumqi at universities, bus stops and restaurants.

Early Tuesday, the official New China News Agency reported that Chinese police had dispersed "more than 200 rioters" trying to gather at the main mosque in Kashgar, another city in Xinjiang.

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that a fresh protest broke out in Urumqi, with about 200 Uighurs blocking a main road in a standoff with security forces. Some of the protesters were screaming that their husbands and children had been arrested, AP said.

State media reported Monday that more than 1,000 people had been injured in the Sunday rioting, and that more than 1,400 had been arrested. It was unclear who suffered the heaviest casualties -- protesters, bystanders or security forces. Telephone and Internet communication in the area was severely restricted, making it difficult to verify government reports. In Urumqi, the roads were empty Monday night, and stores and restaurants normally open late were closed.

Ethnic tensions are high in Xinjiang, which has experienced sporadic bursts of violence in recent years. Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking minority group, have long complained that, like ethnic Tibetans, they have been subjected to political, cultural and religious persecution under the rule of Han Chinese, the country's ethnic majority. The ruling Communist Party has gone to extraordinary lengths to prevent tensions from flaring, particularly during this symbolic year, the 60th anniversary of Communist China's founding.

The violence in Xinjiang was in many ways reminiscent of the ethnic uprising in Tibet in spring 2008, when riots erupted after a protest in the capital, Lhasa. In those riots, which spread quickly throughout the region, the Chinese government insisted the death toll had been contained to 13, even as the Tibetan government in exile insisted the number was closer to 220.

In Washington, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday that the administration is "deeply concerned" about the reports from China and called "on all in Xinjiang to exercise restraint." He added, however, that circumstances surrounding the incident were unclear. A State Department spokesman said officials would raise their concerns about the violence with China's deputy foreign minister, who was visiting Washington on Monday.

State TV reports showed Uighurs attacking Han Chinese bystanders but said nothing about deaths or injuries resulting from police action. The government blamed the bloodshed on exile groups and others it cast as agitators -- specifically Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur leader living in exile in the Washington area -- saying they are separatists plotting against Chinese rule. China made similar claims last year against the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader.

"Their accusations are completely false," Kadeer said at a news conference in Washington on Monday, speaking through an interpreter. "I did not organize the protests or call on the Uighurs to demonstrate."

She condemned the use of force by both sides and denounced what she called "brutal suppression" of her people by the Chinese government. She also called on the White House to release a stronger statement on the government's treatment of the Uighurs.

Uighur supporters plan to gather in Dupont Circle at 2 p.m. Tuesday and march to the Chinese Embassy, where a formal demonstration is to begin at 3:30.

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