HONG KONG—Violent clashes between a Muslim ethnic minority group and Han Chinese villagers in the central Chinese province of Henan have left at least seven people dead, but local residents say the toll of dead and injured is higher. Authorities have now imposed martial law in the area.
"They're still here...There's martial law. We can't go out."
The New York Times initially reported that almost 150 people died in the violence, which began after a taxi driver from the Hui Muslim ethnic group struck and killed a girl from the majority Han Chinese community with his car, leading to fighting and burning of homes in the area.
According to local residents, martial law is in force in the area around Langchenggang township, as armed police prohibit people from coming in or out of the area.
"They're still here...There's martial law. We can't go out," a local resident told RFA's Mandarin service.
"There are still a lot of soldiers here," another villager said. "I can't guess how many."
Other residents were quoted as saying by Agence France-Presse that more than 10 Muslims from the Hui minority and more than 10 from the majority Han Chinese population died.
"Clashes have happened frequently before but this is the worst," he said. "The two groups used farm tools to fight each other," the man said.
The fighting intensified after riot police were drafted into the area to protect the initial trouble spot from thousands of reinforcements from among Hui communities elsewhere in the province.
"There are still a lot of soldiers here. I can't guess how many."
"What happened was that all the other groups of Hui people who live scattered around in Henan drove over in cars and trucks," a reporter on the scene told a Hong Kong television station.
"But the People's Armed Police around the outside of the village wouldn't let them through. There were about 30,000 of them. The Han villagers were wearing white armbands, waving white towels, wearing white hats. They were afraid...that they would get shot."
Local government officials told RFA¹s Cantonese service that clashes had continued for days in Zhongmou, which is located between Zhengzhou and Kaifeng.
"The local government is still trying to settle it. Some Zhengzhou officials have been sent there to assist," said one Zhongmou official who asked not to be named.
Social unrest is becoming commonplace across China's provinces as rapid economic reforms leave hundreds of millions of rural residents without a safety net.
Tempers flare rapidly into violence, as anger over official corruption and financial worries simmer below the surface. Most protests and clashes are suppressed quickly by riot police and a news blackout imposed to prevent unrest from spreading.
The imam from the mosque in Nanren village, one of the flashpoints of the unrest, said thousands of Han Chinese surrounded Nanren village. During a confrontation, a number of houses were burnt down and a brick factory was destroyed.
"People were so afraid. No one dared to go to work or go outside. Even the transportation has been stopped," one resident of a Han village involved in the clash was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency.
She said at least one person in her village had been killed in the fighting, and she had heard at least several others were dead. Houses in her village had been burned, and she said the fighting had escalated when Hui villagers from outside the area were trucked in to join in the fighting.
China's English-language China Daily newspaper gave the first official confirmation of the clashes Monday but downplayed the impact.
"The clashes erupted on Oct. 27 in Langchenggang, a town of Zhongmou County, southeast of the provincial capital city of Zhengzhou," the paper quoted government information officials as saying.
The paper said the fighting was sparked by a traffic accident but made no mention of the death of the girl as reported by The New York Times . The accident happened between two villagers surnamed Lu and Liu, the paper said.
"Later, Lu led a group of villagers to Liu's home, injured Liu and his family members," it said. "This set off a big confrontation between the two villages. The following day, a clash erupted between the villagers, causing one death on the scene and many injuries."
Later, a report from the official Xinhua news agency in Chinese gave the same details as the China Daily . Neither report mentioned any ethnic dimension to the conflict.
China's Hui minority are the descents of Arab and Persian traders who settled in China's seaports between the 7th and 10th centuries A.D. They gradually intermarried and acquired Chinese language and customs, becoming virtually indistinguishable from the Han majority.
Together with other Mandarin-speaking Muslim groups in southwestern Yunnan and further north, the Hui have maintained their links to Islam, and are recognized as the third largest of China's 56 ethnic minorities. The Muslim groups may be the descendants of Central Asian and Mongol Silk Road traders.
By contrast, the Muslim Uyghurs constitute a distinct, Turkic-speaking, Muslim minority in northwestern China and Central Asia. They declared a short-lived East Turkestan Republic in Xinjiang in the late 1940s, but have been under Beijing's control since 1949.
In February 2003, a business dispute between ethnic Tibetans and Chinese Moslems in China¹s western Qinghai Province flared into large-scale violence, resulting in hundreds of injuries and massive property damage, RFA's Tibetan service reported.
Chinese authorities then deployed troops around a bridge over the Machu or Huang Ho River, which demarcates Tibetan and Moslem living areas, where relations between ethnic Tibetans and Chinese Moslems have been tense for years.