Updated at 5:00 p.m. EST on 2013-03-07
Chinese authorities in the troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang on Thursday placed a city under security lockdown after deadly violence between ethnic minority Muslim Uyghurs and Han Chinese, police and Uyghur exiles said.
Police said a security clampdown had been imposed following clashes in Korla city in central Xinjiang, confirming an undetermined number of fatalities.
According to accounts from people working near the scene and from netizens, several people including both Uyghurs and Han Chinese were killed and more injured after a fight broke out in a video game arcade in the city's Golden Triangle commercial district.
An officer who answered the phone at the municipal police incident room confirmed reports of the killings, which initially appeared on China's Twitter-like social media platforms.
He indicated that one or more Uyghurs had attacked Han Chinese but declined to give details of casualties or the current police operation.
He said authorities were holding a meeting about the incident, which reports said occurred in the city's Golden Triangle commercial district.
Asked to confirm reports of a security clampdown, the officer said, "That's right," adding that the measures were city-wide.
A staff member at the Qushi internet cafe near the video game arcade contacted by RFA said she could not speak about what who was killed, how many people died, or how the incident broke out.
“But I can tell you, both Chinese and Uyghurs died," she said.
Earlier reports via the Sina Weibo microblogging service said Uyghurs, or a Uyghur, had attacked and killed Han Chinese in the Golden Triangle area, which is frequented by well-to-do Han Chinese.
"There has been a killing in Korla," said a post by user @guoshisan, suggesting four people were dead and 13 injured and that the violence started with a fight in a video game parlor.
Photos attached to the post showed pools of blood in the road in the middle of a shopping district with police vehicles nearby.
Police at the Saybagh Road and Jianshe Road police stations near the arcade area contacted by RFA refused to comment on the incident and referred questions to the public security bureau.
'Strike hard' policies
Dilxat Raxit, Munich-based spokesman for the exile group, World Uyghur Congress, said that according to sources in the area, one Uyghur injured in the incident had been hospitalized.
He said the violence in Korla "was not an accident" and could be tied to repressive policies in the area.
"Recently, the Korla government has boosted security measures, including more searches and house-to-house raids, and has been targeting Uyghurs for detention," Raxit said.
He added: "The roots of ethnic conflict lie with the Chinese government's 'strike hard' discriminatory policies."
Chinese authorities blame Uyghur separatists for a series of deadly attacks in Xinjiang in recent years, but experts outside China have questioned the legitimacy of the claims, saying Beijing exaggerates the threat from Uyghur “splittists” and uses its “war on terror” to take the heat off of domestic policies that cause unrest.
Other posts on Sina Weibo warned Korla residents to "watch out for your personal safety."
Meanwhile, the city's information channel on Sina Weibo warned residents: "Owing to an incident, there are temporary traffic restrictions in place on Renmin Rd. West, heading in the direction of Renmin Rd. East in the Golden Triangle area," the post said.
"Please could drivers arrange to take another route."
Reports were also circulating among Xinjiang residents that there had been large-scale ethnic violence.
"[I heard] that a lot of people were injured, around 2:00 or 3:00 p.m. in the Golden Triangle, when Uyghurs killed some Han Chinese," said one resident of the region, who declined to be named.
"It's a commercial district," the resident said. "The microblogs are saying that it was a fight that started in a video game arcade."
"But we can't call into the area right now; I don't know if the signal is being blocked."
Elsewhere in the region, a court in the northern city of Ghulja (also known as Ili and in Chinese as Yining) issued a judgment in a case of ethnic violence between Uyghur and Han Chinese high-school students, confirming the May 30, 2012 incident for the first time.
Dilxat Raxit said four Uyghur boys aged around 15 years at the time had been handed administrative sentences following clashes and fights between them and Han Chinese students, during which a Han Chinese student drowned while trying to escape.
One of the boys was identified as Arman Qurban. Dilxat Raxit said none of the Han Chinese boys involved in the incident was punished.
An official who answered the phone at the Ghulja municipal education department said Uyghurs and Han Chinese were schooled together in the city, but denied any ethnic tensions between them.
"The students are mostly given moral education, so that they won't lose their heads and get into fights, like kids do," she said.
"This isn't about fighting between ethnic groups; it's just fighting between kids, which is normal," she said. "There is a lot of pressure on young people, and this is a normal phenomenon."
The news of the Korla attacks and the confirmation of the Ghulja conflict come as China completes its transition to a new generation of leaders under incoming president Xi Jinping at the annual National People's Congress (NPC) session in Beijing.
Rights groups say Xi's administration will inherit a major ethnic crisis caused by Beijing’s failure to reshape its policies towards ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia.
Alim Seytoff, president of the Uyghur American Association, told a seminar in Washington in January that the use of force to repress and crack down on Uyghurs, Tibetans, and ethnic Mongolians seeking more autonomy in China has backfired and has led to greater unrest, putting immense pressure on Xi to maintain stability.
He said that Beijing’s propaganda machine has turned Han Chinese against the Uyghurs and led to violent attacks, setting the stage for riots in the Xinjiang capital Urumqi in July 2009 which left some 200 people dead, according to official count.
Subsequent detentions, imprisonment, and executions of Uyghurs believed to have participated in the violence, as well as policies fueling Han Chinese immigration while curtailing Uyghur cultural traditions and employment opportunities, have left the minority ethnic group feeling even more isolated, Seytoff said.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service, and by Jilil Musha for the Uyghur Service. Translated by Dolkun Kamberi and Luisetta Mudie and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.