By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 9, 2009
URUMQI, China, July 8 -- The Chinese government blanketed this strife-torn city with 20,000 new security troops on Wednesday, as thousands of residents began to flee after deadly ethnic clashes erupted over the weekend.
The top Communist Party official in Urumqi, the capital of China's far-western Xinjiang region, said that order had been restored and that the government will seek the death penalty for the perpetrators of the violence, which has claimed at least 156 lives. The official, Li Zhi, said many of the suspects are students.
The violence began Sunday after a demonstration by ethnic Muslim Uighurs -- upset over a stalled investigation into the death of two Uighur factory workers -- apparently spun out of control, with participants attacking Han Chinese and their businesses. Witnesses said security troops fired shots at the protesters while Han Chinese retaliated against Uighurs with household items such as kitchen knives, pipes and steel bars.
Relations between ethnic minorities and Han Chinese, who make up more than 90 percent of the Chinese population, have long been tense. But until the melee on Sunday, Urumqi had been one of the calmer parts of western China.
Thousands of the city's residents have fled. Men, women and children carrying hastily packed shopping bags with their most valued possessions crowded the city's main bus and train stations on Wednesday. Tickets to many destinations were sold out for the next three days.
Despite a curfew from 9 p.m. to 8 a.m., small clashes between Uighurs and Han Chinese continued. At one point, witnesses said, about 300 Han rioters broke through a police line and attacked Uighur shops and homes.
Clusters of armed groups roamed the streets during the day. About 20 Han men with wooden bats and other weapons converged to beat a Uighur man, according to a reporter with Agence France-Presse who witnessed the incident. A separate group of Han Chinese, who had been reading newspaper coverage of the violence, chased Uighurs at an intersection, catching one man and attacking him.
By evening, the area around Urumqi's bazaar, where the protest started Sunday, had been transformed into a military zone.
At a news conference, the city's mayor said the area was calm. "Under the correct leadership of the regional party committee and government . . . the situation is now under control," Jerla Isamudin said.
Trucks and light-armor vehicles filled with troops from hundreds of miles away were parked every few blocks. Walls of rifle-carrying soldiers closed off gaps between buildings and roads. Groups of soldiers stationed at mosques and other key targets for attacks shouted, "Protect! Protect!"
Researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.