By Gillian Wong
The Associated Press
BEIJING (AP) — Nearly 1,000 protesters from a Muslim ethnic group rioted in China’s far west, overturning barricades, attacking bystanders, and clashing with police in violence that killed at least three people, including a policeman, state media and witnesses said.
State media initially said at least three ethnic Han Chinese were killed in the violence on Sunday, July 5, though it later reported that an unknown number died, among them an armed policeman.
An activist group said one demonstrator may have died.
Protesters, mostly from the Uighur ethnic group, set at least one car on fire, overturned police barriers, and attacked buses. Several hours of violence appeared to subside somewhat as police and military presence intensified into the night, according to participants and witnesses.
The official Xinhua News Agency reported that “the situation was under control” by Monday morning and that police had shut down traffic in parts of the city as a precaution.
Tensions between Uighurs and Chinese are never far from the surface in Xinjiang, China’s vast Central Asian buffer province, where militant Uighurs have waged sporadic, violent separatist campaign.
Protesters gathered Sunday to demand an investigation into a fight between Uighur and Han Chinese workers at a factory in southern China last month. Accounts differed over what happened next in the city of Urumqi, but the violence seemed to have started when a crowd of protesters — who started out peaceful — refused to disperse.
Adam Grode, a Fulbright scholar studying in Urumqi, said he heard explosions and also saw a few people being carried off on stretchers. He also saw a Han Chinese man with blood on his shirt entering a hospital.
He said he saw police pushing people back with tear gas, fire hoses, and batons, and protesters knocking over police barriers and smashing bus windows.
“Every time the police showed some force, the people would jump the barriers and get back on the street. It was like a cat-and-mouse sort of game,” said Grode, 26.
The government’s Xinhua News Agency quoted unnamed officials saying that at least three ethnic Han Chinese were killed in the violence, in which the crowd attacked bystanders, torched vehicles, and interrupted traffic on some roads. It later said an unknown number of people were killed, including the policeman.
Xinjiang’s government accused Uighur exiles, led by a former businesswoman now living in America, Rebiya Kadeer, of fomenting the violence via the Internet.
“The violence is a pre-empted, organized violent crime. It is instigated and directed from abroad and carried out by outlaws in the country,” said a government statement carried by Xinhua.
Kadeer’s spokesman, Alim Seytoff, said by telephone from Washington, D.C., that the accusations were baseless.
“It’s common practice for the Chinese government to accuse Ms. Kadeer for any unrest in East Turkestan and the Dalai Lama for any unrest in Tibet,” he said.
Uighur rights groups and militants demanding an independent Xinjiang often refer to the sprawling region of deserts and mountains, which borders eight Central Asian nations, as “East Turkestan.”
The demonstration started peacefully with more than 300 people staging a silent sit-down protest in People’s Square in Urumqi to demand an investigation into the June 25 brawl at a toy factory in southern China, said Gulinisa Maimaiti, a 32-year-old employee of a foreign company who took part in the protest.
Xinhua said two died in last month’s factory melee in southern Guangdong province, others say the real figure was higher.
Gulinisa said in a phone interview that the crowd grew to 1,000 people, and when they refused to disperse, police pinned protesters to the ground before taking 40 protesters away.
Video shot from a building nearby and photos from mobile phones showed people running from police and a car on fire. In other shots, smoke rises in the distance and fire engines race to the protest.
The Urumqi police and city government declined to comment about the incident.
Uighur separatists have waged a sporadic campaign for independence in recent decades, and the military, armed police, and riot squads maintain a visible presence in the region. After a few years of relative calm, separatist violence picked up last year with attacks against border police and bombings of government buildings.
Four Uighur detainees at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba were recently released and relocated to Bermuda despite Beijing’s objections because U.S. officials have said they fear the men would be executed if they returned to China. Officials have also been trying to transfer 13 others to the Pacific nation of Palau. ♦