Chinese authorities in the troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang confirmed clashes between Han Chinese and Muslim Uyghur high-schoolers in Karamay city last Friday, but denied any ethnic conflict, saying it is "normal" for teenagers to fight.
Uyghur students, parents, and teachers gathered in protest at the Karamay No. 2 High School after a group of Han Chinese students burst into a classroom armed with sticks and attacked some Uyghur students, an exile Uyghur group said this week.
The melee prompted demonstrations throughout the weekend by students, parents, and teachers, who accused the authorities of racial discrimination, according to Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress.
"They included students, parents, Uyghur teachers, and other educational workers," Raxit told RFA's Cantonese service. "But the authorities prevented them from marching to the municipal government buildings."
"Instead, the protesters were confined to the school campus," Raxit said. "According to local sources, there were several hundred of them."
A 'simple fight'?
An official who answered the phone at the Karamay municipal education bureau confirmed the fighting had taken place, but said the ethnicity of the participants was irrelevant.
"It's normal for schoolchildren to fight," the official said. "There is no so-called political issue here, no ethnic problem to hook it to."
"These sorts of problems don't exist," he said.
"A lot of people are jumping on the bandwagon with these issues and complicating what was basically a simple fight between a bunch of students," the official said.
China blamed "hostile overseas forces" for deadly ethnic riots in the regional capital Urumqi in July 2009, in which at least 197 people died.
Targeted in raids
But exile Uyghurs accuse the Chinese government of systematically targeting Uyghurs in a series of raids and police campaigns, while at the same time denying them the benefits of the region's vast natural resources and rapid economic development.
Chinese police recently finished a "strike hard" anti-crime and terrorism campaign in which, Uyghur groups say, the main targets appeared to be devout Muslims.
The added security measures followed a fresh clampdown on Uyghur Muslims in the wake of separate attacks in the Silk Road cities of Kashgar and Hotan that killed more than 30 people in July.
The period marked the bloodiest violence in a year in Xinjiang, where many Uyghurs chafe under Chinese rule.
Raxit said that authorities had imposed a news blackout on the fighting and subsequent demonstrations.
He said police had detained a 23-year-old Uyghur man, Abudousu, after he posted news of the incidents online.
According to Uyghur residents of Karamay, high schools admitting both Han Chinese and Uyghur students appear to have inadvertently stoked ethnic tensions and discrimination against Uyghurs.
They said that attacks on Uyghur teens on such campuses are very common, Raxit said, and that those who retaliate risked being arrested on charges of separatism.
An employee who answered the phone at the Karamay No. 2 High School declined to comment.
"There is no one in the office now," the employee said on Tuesday.
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese service and Fang Yuan for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.