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China, Uighur Groups Give Conflicting Riot Accounts

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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Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 25, 2009

BEIJING -- Three weeks after the riots that left nearly 200 people dead and more than 1,700 injured in the capital of the far western Xinjiang region, the Chinese government and Uighur exile groups have been circulating dueling versions of what happened, in an emotional global propaganda war with geopolitical implications.

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According to the version of events offered by China's Foreign Ministry and state media, the ethnic unrest that erupted in Urumqi on July 5 was a terrorist attack by Uighur separatists. Women in black Islamic robes stood at street corners giving orders, and at least one handed out clubs, officials said, before Muslim Uighur gangs in 50 locations throughout the city simultaneously began beating Han Chinese.

In the account being circulated by Rebiya Kadeer, a U.S.-based Uighur leader who has emerged as the community's main spokesman, Chinese security forces were responsible for the violence that night. According to Kadeer, police and paramilitary and other troops chased peaceful demonstrators, mostly young people protesting a deadly factory brawl elsewhere, into closed-off areas. Then they turned off streetlights and began shooting indiscriminately.

Clear Details Absent

Chinese authorities have allowed foreign reporters access to the area where the clashes occurred and unusual freedom to conduct interviews, and they have provided evidence verifying the brutal attacks on Han Chinese. But few details are clear, and many witnesses who might be able to answer other questions -- Who set off the initial violence? Why were the police unable to stop the attacks? -- are either in jail or dead.

"The narratives of both the Chinese government and outside observers about what happened are hobbled by the lack of independent, verifiable accounts," said Phelim Kine, a researcher with New York-based Human Rights Watch, which is calling for a U.N. investigation into the incident.

Both sides face huge obstacles in trying to convince the world of their stories.

The Chinese government, after decades of covering up and denying such incidents, has a major trust problem, many analysts say. Chinese officials have said they will release video footage of the attacks, phone records and other evidence to support their view of the events in Urumqi, but have not yet done so.

For Kadeer, a 63-year-old former business mogul from Xinjiang who was exiled in 2005 and now lives in the Washington area, observers say the main challenge is convincing people that she can give an authoritative account of events that happened in a country she has not visited in years. Uighur exile groups have declined to provide information about their sources in China, saying they fear that those people will be arrested or worse if they speak out.

Resentment has been building for years between Han Chinese, who make up 92 percent of China's population and dominate its politics and economy, and Uighurs, who once were the majority in the far west, but whose presence there has shrunk in recent decades because of migration by Han Chinese.

Although the Chinese government says its policies have improved Uighurs' educational and job opportunities, some Uighurs say its goal is to assimilate them at the expense of their language, religion and culture.

In the past, the government has linked Uighur separatism to a group known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which it characterizes as a terrorist organization and blames for some recent attacks. Some analysts say that China exaggerates the influence of this group.

When it comes to the events of July 5, Dong Guanpeng, director of the Global Journalism Institute at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said he thinks China is being honest this time, but that doubts have been cast on the information it is releasing because Kadeer is "doing a better job than the Chinese government in public relations."

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