Chinese Police Presence Forces a Tense Calm in Urumqi

July 9, 2009 - 3:57 AM
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Urumqi, China (AP) - Security forces kept a firm grip on the tense Xinjiang capital Thursday after days of ethnic violence that killed 156 people, and alarmed Chinese leaders vowed to deal firmly with those behind the attacks.
 
Crowds of Han Chinese, China's dominant ethnic group, cheered as trucks full of police and covered in banners reading "We must defeat the terrorists" and "Oppose ethnic separatism and hatred" rumbled by. The minority Uighurs became far more fearful about talking to reporters.
 
The region's worst ethnic violence in decades has already forced President Hu Jintao to cut short a trip to Italy, where he was to participate in a Group of Eight summit and hold talks with President Barack Obama. It was an embarrassing move for a leader who wants to show that China has a harmonious society as it prepares to celebrate the 60th anniversary of communist rule in October.
 
Public Security Minister Meng Jiangzhu, who is in Urumqi (pronounced uh-ROOM-chee), has said "key rioters should be punished with the utmost severity."
 
The hundreds of troops that had camped out in the central part of Urumqi for the past three days were gone, but paramilitary police still guarded People's Square and military helicopters flew over the city of 2.3 million.
 
Xinjiang -- a sprawling, oil-rich territory that borders several Central Asian countries -- is home to the Uighurs, largely Muslim, who rioted Sunday and attacked Han Chinese after holding a protest that was ended by police.
 
Officials have said 156 people were killed and more than 1,100 people hurt as the Turkic-speaking Uighurs ran amok in the city, beating and stabbing in anger over the late June deaths of Uighur factory workers during a brawl in a southern Chinese city. State-run media have said two workers died, but many Uighurs believe more were killed.
 
The Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gers) say trigger-happy security forces gunned down many of Sunday's protesters. Officials have yet to give an ethnic breakdown of those killed.
 
The People's Daily, the ruling Communist Party's main newspaper, ran an editorial Thursday saying the violence was "in extreme violation of China's laws."
 
Fear was almost palpable in a Uighur neighborhood called Saimachang, where two days ago a large group of sobbing women scuffled with police and accused them of rounding up their husbands and sons for being suspects in the rioting.
 
On Thursday the Uighurs were far more cautious.
 
"We can't tell the truth, my friend," said one elderly man who would not give his name.
 
One woman led an Associated Press reporter to her home in a back alley. Four women quickly gathered and began complaining about their missing husbands and sons.
 
"The men they arrested still have not returned," said one woman, who said her name was Guli. "It has been three days and we haven't been able to talk with them. We have no news."
 
After an hour, a Uighur official approached reporters and politely asked everyone to leave.
 
Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking people who have complained about the influx of Han Chinese in the region and government restrictions on religion, said the incident was an example of how little the government cared about them.
 
Government officials and state media continued to accuse U.S.-exiled Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer and her overseas followers of being behind the violence. She has denied the allegations and accused China of inciting the violence.
 
Urumqi's mayor, Jierla Yishamuding, was quoted by state media as saying Wednesday that the government would create a 100 million yuan ($14.6 million) Comfort Fund to help families of the dead, as well as those who were injured or disabled in the riot.