UPDATED JULY 6, 2222 GMT
Chinese authorities in the northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) said the capital Urumqi was calm under tight security following deadly weekend riots, with tensions still simmering below the surface, amid international calls for restraint.
The clashes, which left at least 156 dead and hundreds injured, flared after an initially peaceful demonstration took to the city's streets in protest at how the authorities handled recent violence between majority Han Chinese and Uyghur factory workers in Shaoguan city in the southern province of Guangdong, eyewitnesses said.
According to the official Chinese Xinhua news agency, some of the 156 dead bodies were retrieved from Urumqi's streets and lanes, while all the others were confirmed dead at hospitals. Xinhua also said more than 700 suspects had been taken into custody.
Security forces were now manning checkpoints at strategic points throughout the city, and ethnic minority officers were being drafted from outlying regions to help interrogate detained suspects, police said.
XUAR police chief Liu Yaohua told reporters Monday that apart from the 156 confirmed dead, 828 people were injured in the deadly violence that erupted Sunday night, and that the death toll would "continue to climb."
Liu said rioters burned 261 motor vehicles, including 190 buses, at least 10 taxis, and two police cars, with vehicles still visibly aflame on the city streets early Monday.
Rioters destroyed 203 shops and 14 homes, and several hundred people had been detained, he added.
"Police have tightened security in downtown Urumqi streets and at key institutions such as power and natural gas companies and TV stations to prevent large-scale riots," Xinhua quoted Liu as saying.International concern
Armored police car in an Urumqi street, July 5.
In Geneva, United National Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Monday for restraint, while Italian President Giorgio Napolitano raised the issue of human rights with Chinese President Hu Jintao and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s government voiced concern over the violence.
In Washington, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said, "We are deeply concerned over reports of many deaths and injuries from violence in Urumqi in western China. Reports, so far, are unclear about the circumstances surrounding the deaths and injuries, so it would be premature to comment or speculate further. We call on all in Xinjiang to exercise restraint."
Ban, speaking at a news conference, told reporters, "Wherever it is happening or has happened, the position of the United Nations and the secretary-general has been consistent and clear: that all the differences of opinion, whether domestic or international, must be resolved peacefully through dialogue."
"Governments concerned must also exercise extreme care and take necessary measures to protect the life and safety of the civilian population and their citizens and their properties, and protect freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of information," he added.
Sophie Richardson, advocacy director at the Washington office of Human Rights Watch, called the violence in Xinjiang "unacceptable, all around." But she pointed to significant curbs imposed by the authorities on Uyghur people for years.
"We condemn the violence of the security forces against protesters as much as we do [that of] protesters against security forces," Richardson said.
"But … there is also a larger context that has to be taken into account, where basic rights are chronically denied to large numbers of Uyghurs. And that’s probably one of the driving factors of these protests—the kinds of encroachment into basic aspects of daily life that Uyghurs have to put up with."
"We think it’s appropriate that Navi Pillay, the new high commissioner for human rights at the U.N., act on the Chinese government’s invitation to go to China as soon as possible—and particularly request to visit Xinjiang to find out what’s happened there."Fear of escalation
Uyghur witnesses said the protest began when as many as 1,000 Uyghurs gathered to demand a probe into the deadly fight in Shaoguan late last month.
Before the demonstrators reached the People’s Square in central Urumqi, armed police were in position and moved to disperse them, one witness said.
Police "scattered them [the protesters]," he said. "They beat them. Beat them, including girls, very, very viciously,” he said. “The police were chasing them and captured many of them. They were beaten badly."
"When the demonstrators reached the People's Square, armed police suppressed them using electroshock weapons and so on," he said, adding, "after that, other protests erupted in Uyghur areas of town."
A Uyghur patient at the Dosluk No. 3 Hospital said she saw at least 10 to 15 injured men there.
"There were Uyghurs and Chinese, but mostly Uyghurs. There were both badly injured and lightly injured. Blood was everywhere," she said.
"Riots took place in bus stations, in tourist spots, and in shopping areas. Scores of Uyghurs were killed. Armed police were carrying automatic assault rifles and machine guns. There were thousands of soldiers. It had a tremendous impact, and we won’t be able to go to work for three days," another resident said, speaking on condition on anonymity.
"When the protest started ... I was near the Bank of China in Nanmen. There were many people. Police surrounded the areas from Döngköwrük to Nanmen," one youth said Sunday. "There were police, paramilitary. They were fully armored, and they had steel helmets, too."
Another youth said the protest began peacefully but became violent after police fired on the crowd, and protesters then attacked cars and shops. His account couldn't be independently confirmed.City 'now calm'
A police officer contacted by telephone early Monday said a curfew had been imposed on Uyghur areas, and residents said many shops were shuttered.
"People are dead. This might have planned by evil-minded people," the officer said.
"All the shops in the area where the riot happened were closed today," one Uyghur girl said in an interview Monday.
"I walked around the streets a while ago. There were police and soldiers in the streets. There are some Uyghurs, but no Chinese. Today, for the first time in my life, I have a feeling that Urumqi is my hometown, because there were no Chinese in the streets. I am so glad."
A shopowner in Urumqi who declined to give his name said he had had to close for business as police swarmed through the city.
"We closed our doors from last night. Armed police dispersed the protesters in about two hours. Firefighters were also dispatched and last night police were all over the city," he said in an interview Monday.
Urumqi is home to 2.3 million residents, including many Uyghurs, who have chafed for years under Chinese rule. The city is located 3,270 kms (2,050 miles) west of Beijing.
Uyghur sources said the protest was organized online and began early July 5 with about 1,000 people but grew by thousands more during the day.
Online messages meanwhile called on Uyghurs in other major cities to stage protests Monday to show support for the Uyghurs who died in Shaoguan.
"We decided to hold a demonstration and stressed that it shouldn’t be violent," an organizer of Sunday's demonstration said in an interview.Exiles blamed
In a televised speech on Monday, XUAR Governor Nur Bekri explicitly blamed the clashes on Rebiya Kadeer, a former businesswoman who was jailed by Chinese authorities for "subversion" before she was paroled and admitted to the United States.
Kadeer now serves as leader of the Washington-based Uyghur American Association and Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, and Chinese authorities have accused her repeatedly of fomenting separatism among Uyghurs.
"This riot is typical, directed from overseas but carried out inside [China], organized and premeditated," Nur Bekri said. "On July 5, Rebiya made a phone call to China to incite the riot and by 7 p.m. protests erupted in Urumqi, and in some locations there was violence."
Smoke rises over Urumqi from near South Gate (Nan Men) as demonstrators clash with police, July 5.
Both Kadeer and a spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress, Dilshat Rashit, have rejected the charge.
The Uyghur American Association, in a statement late Sunday, cited reports that 1,000 to 3,000 protesters marched through the Döngköwrük [Erdaoqiao] area of Urumqi on Sunday, "some of whom were waving the flag of the People’s Republic of China."
Chinese authorities deployed regular police, anti-riot police, special police, and the People's Armed Police to contain them, it said, citing unnamed witnesses as saying that an unknown number of Uyghur protesters died after police fired on them.
Kadeer said the violence "could have been avoided if the Chinese authorities had properly investigated the Shaoguan killings."Anger over Shaoguan
In separate interviews, three Uyghur youths now under Chinese government protection said the fighting in Shaoguan began when Han Chinese laborers stormed the dormitories of Uyghur colleagues, beating them with clubs, bars, and machetes.
The clashes began late June 25 and lasted into the early hours of the following day. At least two people were killed and 118 injured, and witnesses said the numbers could be higher. A number of Uyghurs have voiced anger and bitterness over the clash and accused police of doing too little too late to stop it.
"If the government had given any explanation about the Shaoguan incident without hiding it from Uyghurs, this would not have happened in Urumqi," one businessman said on Monday.
"If the government had explained, as the demonstrators demanded, the protests would have dispersed," he said, referring to the demonstrations on Sunday. "Instead, the government got heavy-handed, and this angered the people."
"Because the police took the protest leaders away, the protesters did not know what to do and acted aimlessly. If the leaders had not been captured, the demonstration would have ended peacefully. Trying to dissipate [the protest], the government only aggravated it."Underlying resentment
Screenshot from a message board in Uyghur calling for a demonstration in Kashgar, July 6.
Like Tibet, which erupted in protests in early 2008, the XUAR has long been home to smoldering ethnic tensions related to religion, culture, and regional economic development that residents say has disproportionately enriched and employed majority Han Chinese immigrants.
China has accused Uyghur separatists of fomenting unrest in the region, particularly in the run-up to and during the Olympics last year, when a wave of violence hit the vast desert region.
The violence prompted a crackdown in which the government says 1,295 people were detained for state security crimes, along with tighter curbs on the practice of Islam.
XUAR Party Chief Wang Lequan was quoted in China’s official media as saying the fight against these forces was a “life or death struggle,” and he has spoken since of the need to “strike hard” against ethnic separatism.
Activists have reported wide-scale detentions, arrests, new curbs on religious practices, travel restrictions, and stepped-up controls over free expression.Original reporting by Mamatjan Juma, Shohret Hoshur, and Mehriban for RFA's Uyghur service and by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated from the Uyghur by Mamatjan Juma and from the Mandarin by Jia Yuan. Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han. Edited by Luisetta Mudie.