Authorities in China's troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang have prevented families of Uyghurs who perished in the July 5, 2009 riots from entering the capital Urumqi to mourn their loss as Beijing marked the fourth anniversary of ethnic violence by staging military "anti-terrorism" exercises.
But Uyghur activists warned that any flexing of military muscle and labeling of Uyghur opposition to government policies as acts of terrorism will only worsen ongoing tensions between minority ethnic Muslim Uyghurs and majority Han Chinese following the violence which left some 200 people dead and 1,700 injured, according to official media reports.
Relatives of Uyghurs who died during the ethnic clashes in Urumqi have been prevented from entering the capital to mark the event, the exile World Uyghur Congress (WUC) said.
"In Urumqi, families who lost sons and daughters during the July 5 violence have been forbidden to mourn them in any way," Dilxat Raxit, Sweden-based WUC spokesman, said.
He said all families affected by the clashes between Han Chinese and Muslim Uyghurs that rocked the city four years ago have been placed under house arrest for the period of the anniversary.
"The relatives who want to come to Urumqi from the south of the region, from Kashgar and Aksu, to remember their dead sons and daughters are being forbidden to enter the city to mourn them," Raxit said.
In Kashgar prefecture's Mekit county, the authorities have even taken the computers and cell phones of all "religious-minded people and searched them," he said.
Chinese authorities blame outbreaks of violence in the region on Uyghur "terrorists," but rights groups and experts 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.
Urumqi residents said the authorities had announced large-scale military exercises on the eve of the anniversary.
"Everyone received a mass text message from the Urumqi municipal propaganda department saying that military exercises are taking place from Thursday at 1.00 p.m., concentrated around six towns and villages in Urumqi county," an Urumqi resident surnamed Zhang told RFA.
"It asked for increased cooperation from city residents, farmers, herders, and tourists," he said.
"If there are military exercises going on in Urumqi county, then they're likely to be going on everywhere [in the region]," Zhang added.
A second Urumqi resident surnamed Han said he had also received the message.
"They have stepped up security, and I received a text message saying that they are conducting anti-terrorist military exercises in all the towns in Urumqi county."
He said patrols were more frequent within city limits, too.
"There are armed police and riot police patrolling all the boulevards and all the back alleys," Han said.
Raxit said recent violence in the region had strengthened official rhetoric about "terrorism," warning that "this will only make the situation worse."
"They have also launched a wave of official propaganda to ensure that the outside world only gets China's version [of events]."
Earlier this week, police announced a raft of "anti-terrorist" measures including enhanced arrangements for people to report suspects to the authorities.
Han Chinese fear attacks
Resident Han said many Han Chinese weren't automatically dismissive of Uyghurs' complaints against Beijing, but that most feared attacks on ordinary citizens.
"If you target the government [peacefully], then it's easier to win support, [because] there is a huge gulf between the government and the general population," he said.
"But if they are designated as terrorists, rioters, and saboteurs, then they won't win majority support," he said.
In the first of last week's violent incidents in Xinjiang, the Xinhua state news agency said "knife-wielding mobs" attacked police stations and other sites in Lukchun township in Turpan prefecture before police opened fire, leaving 35 people dead, including the 10 attackers.
But local officials and residents told RFA the death toll in the Lukchun incident on June 26 was higher, at 46.
Two days later, in Hotan prefecture's Hanerik township, officials confirmed that police fired at hundreds of Uyghurs protesting the arrest of a young religious leader and closure of a mosque, acknowledging that up to 15 people may have been killed and 50 others injured.
On the same day, local officials said that at least three people were killed in separate violence in Tuanjie Square in Hotan city amid conflicting reports on the circumstances that led to the incident.
The 2009 clashes in Urumqi were sparked by regional anger at attacks on Uyghur workers by their Han Chinese colleagues at a toy factory in the southern city of Shaoguan about a week before.
Days after the incident in Shaoguan, a peaceful, student-led demonstration by Uyghurs in Urumqi in protest against the attacks escalated into full-scale ethnic rioting.
Beijing blamed exile Uyghur dissident Rebiya Kadeer for inciting the violence, but Kadeer and the WUC have repeatedly said that Chinese police opened fire on unarmed Uyghur protesters.
The government instituted a harsh crackdown, including a five-month, region-wide Internet blackout and large-scale sweeps on Uyghur homes, which have once more intensified in the wake of the recent violence, residents say.
Kadeer has said that about 10,000 Uyghurs have been reported missing since the 2009 violence, most of them taken into custody by authorities in large-scale sweep operations.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.