Authorities in Shanghai have detained six Muslim Uyghurs following clashes between police and dozens of protesting Uyghur street vendors outside a major mosque in the city, residents and exile Uyghurs said.
"At least six people are currently being held by the Shanghai state security police," said Dilxat Raxit, Sweden-based spokesman for the exile World Uyghur Congress.
The Uyghurs gathered and held cardboard placards on Friday in protest at ethnic discrimination after they were barred from selling food outside the mosque, eyewitnesses and local residents told RFA.
"It happened after Friday prayers," said an employee who answered the phone on Monday at a mosque on Changde road, which is frequented by Uyghurs.
"Normally the Uyghurs sell their stuff in front of the mosque ... but the street vendors were no longer allowed to sell there," he said.
"They have families to feed. If they aren't allowed to sell their stuff, how are they going to live?"
He said police attacked and beat some protesters, dispersing them.
A second Uyghur man who saw the clashes confirmed his account.
"When we went to prayer, they started to expel Uyghur ladies from the front yard of the mosque," he said. "There were around 200 police there. The protesters were mostly Uyghur females, about fifty of them."
He said he had been surprised that the police had beaten some of the women. "We thought they wouldn't attack, because they were only women," he said. "But they attacked them and dispersed them."
He added there had been a strong police and urban management, or chengguan, presence before the protest, which appeared to be spontaneous.
"They just did it to oppose the government’s decision to displace them from where they were plying their trade," he said, adding that this was the first time such a crackdown had targeted Uyghur food-vendors.
Raxit said the vendors had been threatened by the authorities with expulsion from Shanghai.
"According to our sources on the ground, the authorities are implementing some forcible measures to send home the Uyghurs that are currently doing business there," he said.
"This is unacceptable to them, and there was a demonstration of nearly 100 Uyghurs, mostly women, against discriminatory government [internal] repatriation policies."
Under China's nationwide "stability maintenance" system, internal repatriation is frequently used as a means of targeting those whom local governments view as a threat.
Dissidents, rights activists, and anyone believed to be a potential troublemaker can be forced to return to the town of their birth, regardless of how long they have lived or worked in a different city.
Photos posted online showed a group of Uyghur women and children gathering in the middle of a city street and holding up cardboard signs saying, "President Xi Jinping, you should care about the people."
An employee who answered the phone at a mosque in Shanghai's Putuo district said the protesters were mostly street vendors who had been plying a busy trade in the streets around the mosque in recent days, particularly around Friday prayers.
He said large numbers of police had arrived at the scene after some stallholders protested against being moved on from the site.
"Putuo district is in the middle of a civic pride campaign, so they don't want them to put [their stalls] there," the employee said. "Some of the Uyghurs were saying, 'Well, if you won't let us set up there, where are we going to set up?'"
"They still haven't reached an agreement with the government, and they don't want to leave [this area,] although they block traffic sometimes."
An employee who answered the phone at the Shanghai representative office of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region said no one was available to take questions over the holiday weekend.
An eyewitness who saw the demonstration said the Uyghurs had been selling Muslim (Halal) food outside a mosque frequented by Chinese Hui Muslims in Shanghai for the past few months.
"These people are mostly Uyghur farmers who lost their land, or unemployed Uyghur youths," said the owner of a nearby restaurant. "All of them came from Xinjiang."
"The Shanghai government wasn't happy about this, because the Uyghurs aren't Shanghai residents, and they might pollute the streets," said the restaurant owner, who declined to give his name.
An employee who answered the phone at a Muslim restaurant in the district said the police had detained some people during the protest.
"It happened outside the mosque," he said. "They were arresting people, that's right." He appeared willing to speak further, but was suddenly cut off by someone close by.
A woman's voice said: "I'm sorry, this has nothing to do with our restaurant ... We were at work all day [Saturday] and we don't know what you're talking about," she said, before hanging up.
The protest came less than two weeks after clashes near Kashgar, in the south of Xinjiang, left more than 20 people dead, mostly Uyghurs, in the worst violence since deadly ethnic riots rocked the the regional capital of Urumqi in 2009.
Beijing has blamed the violence on "terrorists," although it said there was no international link to the clashes, and has provided scant details of how the deaths took place.
Call for international pressure
Raxit said exile Uyghur dissident and World Uyghur Congress president Rebiya Kadeer had called on the international community to pay attention to Beijing's discriminatory policies targeting Uyghurs.
In a recent interview with RFA, Kadeer called on governments around the world to put pressure on Beijing over repeated violations of Uyghurs'
civil rights and threats to their physical safety.
"If China doesn't uphold the right of Uyghurs to demonstrate in Shanghai, this could prompt a strong backlash once more," Raxit said. "We are extremely concerned about this."
The April 23 violence in Siriqbuya (in Chinese, Selibuya) township in Kashgar prefecture's Maralbeshi (Bachu) county left 21 dead, and officials have said that 19 Uyghur suspects have been held.
Chinese authorities blamed the violence on Uyghur "terrorists," but the World Uyghur Congress has called for more transparency about the case, including information about Uyghurs killed and arrested, as well as details of any terrorist group they may have been linked to.
Rights groups and experts familiar with the region say Beijing exaggerates the terrorism threat to take the heat off domestic policies that cause unrest or to justify the authorities' use of force against the Uyghur minority.
Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness, blaming the problems partly on the influx of Han Chinese into the region.
Reported by Rukiye Turdush and Gülchéhre Keyyum for RFA's Uyghur Service, Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service, and Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma and Luisetta Mudie. Written in English by Luisetta Mudie.