Chinese authorities imposed a security clampdown in major cities in the tense northwestern region of Xinjiang on Thursday, the third anniversary of ethnic violence between that left hundreds dead.
Residents said authorities had stepped up security searches and police presence in the regional capital of Urumqi, where bloody clashes had broken out on July 5, 2009, driving a deeper wedge between the city's Uyghurs and Han Chinese.
A Han Chinese Urumqi resident surnamed Chen said the authorities had set up "Stability Maintenance Patrols" in tents at every major intersection in the city, staffed by riot police and a volunteer force of local residents.
Chen said there were few people on the streets around Urumqi's normally packed Erdaoqiao Bazaar, and that anyone entering the market was being subjected to security searches.
Armed police carrying tear-gas canisters and shock grenades patrolled the area near the bazaar, while security volunteer teams patrolled inside, Chen said.
"There weren't so many people inside the bazaar, but there were a lot of voluntary security patrols," he said.
"On the three main streets outside the bazaar, Jiefang Road, Heping Road, and Tuanjie Road, police patrol vehicles carrying armed police and riot police were driving up and down."
"Some of the vehicles were parked at the [bazaar] entrance and the major intersections, and there were foot patrols as well," Chen said.
Authorized to shoot
A source who declined to be identified at a village some 100 kilometers from Urumqi said security forces were carrying live ammunition, and had been ordered to shoot to kill anyone who showed "resistance."
"Right now, in the village police office, there's a policeman, two special police and six volunteer soldiers on duty," the source said.
"At this sensitive time, they have been issued with guns and live ammunition."
"If they encounter resistance, they are authorized to shoot to kill," the source said.
A second Han Chinese Urumqi resident surnamed Yang said security had been getting tighter and tighter in the run-up to the anniversary.
He said the domestic airport had instituted security checks which appeared to target the region's Turkic-speaking, Muslim Uyghurs, including checking the identities of women wearing veils.
"Security is very tight if you want to travel by plane in Xinjiang," Yang said. "It's really obvious that the Uyghurs are being discriminated against."
"The checks are quite strict; you have to take off your belt and your shoes."
Yang said one sign at Urumqi's airport read: "Please would Han Chinese cooperate with security checks by removing their shoes and belts."
"It's the same in Kashgar and Urumqi," he said.
Uyghurs abroad held protests in front of Chinese embassies in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Turkey, the UK, the U.S., and other countries this week to mark the July 5 protest and ensuing government crackdown.
But authorities were doing everything in their power to prevent any sort of gathering of Uyghurs in Urumqi to mark the anniversary on Thursday, Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) said.
He said the authorities had stepped up house-to-house raids and searches of Uyghur homes in the run-up to the anniversary and boosted the number of plainclothes police on surveillance duty in the region's mosques.
Anyone who had lost a family member during the violence was also being held under close surveillance, and Uyghur students were forbidden to leave campus, he said.
"Last night, they were carrying out blanket security searches on Uyghurs," he said. "They have already put measures in place to send any Uyghurs who aren't from Urumqi back where they came from."
"The authorities have also stepped up their surveillance of mosques, which are now all filled with armed security personnel and plainclothes police," he said.
The regional secretary of the ruling Communist Party Zhang Chunxian, who was appointed as a "new broom" in the wake of the 2009 violence, called on police across the region to step up security measures to prevent a terrorist attack, the region's state-run Xinjiang Daily newspaper reported on Wednesday.
Following the violence China ramped up its anti-terrorism campaign in the resource-rich region, where Uyghurs say they are subjected to political control and persecution for seeking meaningful autonomy in their homeland and are denied economic opportunities stemming from Beijing's rapid development.
The clashes in Urumqi were sparked by regional anger to attacks on Uyghur workers by their Han Chinese colleagues at a toy factory in the southern city of Shaoguan on June 26, 2009.
Days after the incident in Shaoguan, peaceful, student-led demonstration by Uyghurs in the Xinjiang regional capital of 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.
The WUC has said thousands of Uyghurs, mostly men, went missing in the aftermath of the violence, many of them taken into custody with little or no notice or explanation given to their relatives.
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese service and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.