HONG KONG—The top Communist Party official in the city of Urumqi, Li Zhi, has been removed from his post after days of mass protests in which five people died, sparked by a bizarre series of syringe stabbings.
The director of Xinjiang's public security department, Liu Yaohua, was also sacked and replaced with Aksu prefecture party chief Zhu Changjie.
Authorities have meanwhile deployed thousands of riot police to the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where nearly 200 people were killed in July in fighting between Han Chinese and ethnic Uyghurs.
Unconfirmed reports said police used tear gas to disperse protesters, while other reports said the stabbings were continuing.
Protesters marched by the thousands Thursday and Friday demanding the resignation of Li and his boss, Xinjiang party secretary Wang Lequan, for failing to provide adequate public safety in the city.
No reasons were citing for the firings, but the rioting in July was the worst in Xinjiang in more than a decade. Uyghurs, who are ethnically distinct and largely Muslim, have long chafed under Beijing's rule.
"I think it's saying to local officials: don’t allow anything like this to happen. The implicit message is: do whatever you need to make sure there are not such events, meaning--use repression, use policing, use infiltration and so forth,” Gardner Bovingdon, a professor of Central Eurasian studies at the University of Indiana told RFA on Saturday.
“Hard-liners are in the ascendant. The July 5 protests and this new round of protests and the firing ... all indicate that the government is going to go for still more rigorous political control,” he added.
"Because just last week President Hu Jintao spent four days in Xinjiang, his first visit there since July. And earlier this week, the state news agency said the situation was stabilizing and tourism coming back."
The firings could assuage protesters and quash calls to dismiss Wang, who is a member of China's Politburo and an ally of President Hu Jintao.
Li, 58, took on a visible role during the July violence, climbing atop a car with a megaphone and urging an angry crowd of Han Chinese to show their patriotism by fighting separatists but not ordinary Uyghurs.
On Thursday, when more than 10,000 people protested through the city, Li and Wang separately waded into crowds to meet with protesters to defuse tensions, only to be greeted with shouts to "step down."
Urumqi's prosecutor said meanwhile that of the 21 suspects in custody, all of them Uyghurs, two jabbed a taxi driver with a heroin-filled syringe to steal 710 yuan (U.S. $105) to buy drugs.
Five hundred seek treatment
More than 500 people have sought treatment for stabbings, official media said, although only about 100 showed signs of having been stabbed.
A People's Liberation Army medical team, visiting Urumqi, said they conducted checks on 22 patients who showed clear signs of having been stabbed and found no indication that radioactive or biochemical substances had been used in any of the attacks.
The Uyghur overseas community and some earlier Xinhua reports said that other ethnic groups were also victims of the attacks, although the majority of victims were Han Chinese.
On National Television, Meng Jianzhu, Beijing's public security minister, said: "The needle stabbing incident is a continuation of the '7-5' incident, and it's plotted by unlawful elements and instigated by ethnic separatist forces. Their purpose is to damage ethnic unity."
Uyghurs in Xinjiang have long complained of economic inequality, religious controls, and lack of freedom of expression under Chinese rule--notably since Han Chinese began migrating to Xinjiang in the 1960s.
Written for the Web in English by Sarah Jackson-Han. Additional reporting by newswires.