HONG KONG—Chinese authorities in the restive northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) sent paramilitary police reinforcements into the regional capital Urumqi on Wednesday, placing the city under effective martial law.
Many residents, both majority Han Chinese and ethnic minority Muslim Uyghurs, were still armed and fearful of further violence, however.
Foreign correspondents on the ground in Urumqi said they had been told to leave as soon as possible.
“At one point a dozen Han men broke past riot police and rushed into Uyghur neighborhood—everyone was running,” al-Jazeera’s Melissa K. Chan said via the online micro-blogging service Twitter.
“I’ve seen Chinese-made AK-47s out now, carried by the soldiers. They’ve marched in chanting, ‘Protect the Country! Serve the People!’” Chan said.
Calls for revengeThe latest ethnic violence between Han Chinese and Uyghurs, which was sparked following attacks on Uyghur migrant workers at a factory in the southern province of Guangdong last month, prompted Chinese President Hu Jintao to abandon a G-8 summit in Italy and fly home to deal with the crisis.
Official media said 156 people died in riots on Sunday. The ethnicity of the dead was not specified.
Photos of dead bodies posted on the Internet sparked calls for revenge, and thousands of armed Han Chinese poured onto Urumqi’s streets Tuesday, trying to break through police lines into Uyghur neighborhoods.
Many Han Chinese say Sunday’s dead were mostly Han killed by Uyghurs, while exiled Uyghur groups say many Uyghurs were attacked, with some killed, by armed Han Chinese mobs.
The government has blamed the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress for inflaming anti-Chinese sentiment and causing Sunday’s riots.
“Most of the Uyghurs are friendly people. A few of them are bad," a Han Chinese listener told RFA's Cantonese service.
"I think only a small number of Uyghur people were involved in the riot. Definitely someone behind the scenes was backing them,” the caller said.
A Shandong lawyer in his 50s, speaking on RFA’s Mandarin-language call-in program “Voices of the People,” said the clashes stem from larger problems between Han Chinese and Uyghur communities.
“I think that, on the surface, the conflict between the Han and the Uyghurs is an ethnic problem. In reality, it is a conflict between the ruling class and the ruled," the lawyer said.
"Who is responsible for planting the seed of the violence? Our TV news says that Rebiya [Kadeer] started it. Who is Rebiya? How can she manipulate events in China? My experience has taught me to believe in the opposite of what our news media say,” he said.
A 58-year-old Manchurian worker from Shaanxi, also speaking on “Voices of the People,” said the
riots have "deep roots" and were "long in the making."
“To resolve the issue, the central government must show respect to the will and wishes of the local people. If the Han, as the ruling class, oppress and exploit the minorities, then what we have on our hands is more than clashes between the classes; it is clashes between different nationalities,” the worker said.
Chaos in the streets
The city descended into chaos Tuesday, and police fired tear gas to keep Han Chinese mobs under control.
A curfew was declared Tuesday night, and troops continued to pour into the city Wednesday.
Thousands of riot police wearing helmets and carrying shields lined up on a main road in Urumqi dividing the city center from a Uyghur district, with columns of soldiers behind them.
Military trucks rolled by with loudspeakers blaring: “Everybody please cooperate, please go home.”
Journalists at the scene said some armed mobs were still abroad brandishing makeshift weapons on the city’s streets.
International alarm over the crisis intensified, with Muslim countries, the United Nations, and the European Union expressing concern.
President Hu left for China due to the “situation” in Xinjiang, where 1,080 people have been injured and 1,434 arrested in unrest between Han Chinese and Muslim Uyghurs since Sunday, the foreign ministry said in a statement.
It said State Councillor Dai Bingguo would attend the G-8 summit in Hu’s place.
Meanwhile, exiled Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer accused Chinese police of killing 400 Uyghurs in “police shootings and beatings” in Urumqi.
Kadeer, chairperson of the World Uyghur Congress, also denied instigating the riots.
“Overseas incitement cannot cause this kind of thing to happen, and overseas figures didn’t incite it at all. The incident occurred due to the six decades of oppression, crackdown, and control of the Uyghur people by the dictatorial and despotic rule of the Chinese government,” Kadeer said.
“Through political brainwashing, the Chinese government purposely induces the Han Chinese to hate the Uyghur, painting Uyghurs as the enemy of China. Therefore, the Uyghur people can no longer endure this,” Kadeer added.
Original reporting by RFA’s Uyghur and Mandarin services, and Hailang for RFA's Cantonese service. Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.