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Unrest in China Forces Many Minorities to Leave Restive Western City

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.

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The Xinjiang region in recent years has experienced a large influx of Han Chinese lured by the government's ambitious Develop the West program, which seeks to duplicate the success of the wealthier coastal areas. As a result, the region's Han population has jumped from 6 percent in 1949 to more than 40 percent in 2000, according to the last census. The initiative has boosted incomes all around, but it has also set up an uncomfortable hierarchy. Many of the new bosses are Han, while the workers are from minority groups.

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The bloody riots on Sunday show just how deep the mistrust between Han Chinese and other ethnic groups runs, and how quickly a seemingly minor disagreement can escalate. The violence began with a false Internet rumor about the rape of two Han women by Uighur workers. That led to a fight in a toy factory in the southern Chinese city of Shaoguan that left two Uighurs dead.

The investigation into the workers' deaths, which some Uighurs felt was inadequate, sparked a demonstration in Urumqi on Sunday. The protest spun out of control as paramilitary troops fired on protesters and rioters torched cars and businesses. A number of Han bystanders said they were attacked without provocation. Two days later, violence broke out as vigilante Han groups launched retaliatory attacks on Uighurs.

The Chinese government has said that the situation in Urumqi is now under control. But it will take much longer to repair the psychological damage that the ethnically charged violence has wrought on local residents.

Fear on Both Sides

The five-story complex where Ye and Mu live -- complete with its leaks, cracked cement and creaky doors -- earlier housed 100 Uighur and Kazakh residents, who had come to Urumqi in search of a better life. Now all but 25 are gone. They have fled to parts of Xinjiang where Hans are fewer in number. Still, Ye has compassion for his Han neighbors.

"It isn't just us who are scared of what's going on. Hans are also scared," Ye said. On Tuesday night, he said, he welcomed several Han women who needed refuge from the mob-fueled violence. As it turned out, everyone inside got lucky. The attackers moved on.

Some Uighur neighbors were not as fortunate. A 25-year-old who gave his name as Abu Budu said he was taking a walk with his older brother when he was suddenly surrounded by a Han Chinese mob.

He said he heard one man in the crowd tell the others not to beat the Uighurs, but then felt a blow to his head and lost consciousness. He woke up at the hospital with gashes across his back, a concussion and so many bruises on his face that it had turned black. He said he is being kept in a different ward from his brother and has been given no information about his condition. "They beat me without any reason," he said.

At dawn Wednesday, people began packing to leave. Most took only small shopping bags, leaving furniture and other expensive but bulky items behind. But Ye and Mu's family was stuck. They could not walk because Ye's mother is nearly blind, and they could not find a taxi driver willing to take minorities across the city to the Uighur area.

Mu said she is angry not only at the Han Chinese who turned violent, but also at the Uighurs who did the same, leaving families like hers with few options.

Ye tried to reassure his family members about their future in the countryside.

"Life there will be all right," he said. "It's a small place and more peaceful. We will just do labor work and farm."

Outside, the destruction of the one-room Uighur restaurant was drawing curious Han passersby. Several men armed with sticks stood on the sidewalk across the street from the restaurant, a few meters from the door to the apartment complex. They gazed at the entrance as another group of Uighurs -- mostly women and children -- trickled out, heads bowed so as not to make eye contact with the onlookers.

Researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.

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