Police fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of ethnic minority Uyghurs angry at a crackdown on motorcyclists at a marketplace in China’s restive northwestern Xinjiang region this week, according to eyewitnesses and police.
Police resorted to the measure at the Peyshenbe Bazaar in Tusul village outside Hotan (in Chinese, Hetian) city on Thursday after hundreds of shoppers surrounded a group of about ten policemen involved in the crackdown, according to one man who was in the crowd.
“The police used tear gas to disperse the people, as they were ignoring the orders from the police to stand back,” he told RFA’s Uyghur Service on condition of anonymity.
“The elderly people were crying and young kids were screaming,” he said.
The policemen had been stopping motorcyclists as they arrived at the bazaar to check their vehicle registration, impounding unregistered ones and charging owners 300 yuan (U.S. $50) for their return, the source said.
The crowd had gathered around the police as motorcyclists argued with the police officers, growing larger after one of the policemen pushed the wife of one of the motorcyclists, he said.
Tusul police officer Ablet Tursun confirmed the incident, while station chief Gheyretjan Ablimit denied that it had been a major disturbance.
“Nothing happened. We are just going about our daily lives here,” Ablimit said.
A retired local police officer speaking on condition of anonymity said he had heard about the use of tear gas and that police had angered the crowd with their rude behavior.
Local authorities have placed a high priority on security at the bazaar because of its location along the road to Hotan Airport and because it attracted a large number of people from the city and nearby villages, he said.
“Security there is very important and not easy to maintain,” he said.
The incident comes amid high tensions following a series of deadly clashes in Xinjiang.
The region is home to some 10 million mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uyghurs who say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination and oppressive religious controls under Beijing’s policies, blaming the problems partly on an influx of Han Chinese.
According to official figures about 100 people are believed to have been killed in clashes since April last year—many of them Uyghurs accused by the authorities of terrorism and separatism.
In the latest violence, 11 Uyghurs were killed two weeks ago after allegedly attacking a police patrol in Aksu prefecture.
Critics say such violence has been fueled by oppressive Chinese policies and strict religious controls, with overseas Uyghur rights groups claiming authorities exaggerate the separatist threat in the region to justify invasive, heavy-handed security measures.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.