Police fought to restore order last night after thousands of members of China’s Muslim Uighur minority rampaged through city streets, burning vehicles and blocking traffic.
At least three people were killed in a rare outburst of violence in Urumqi, the capital of China’s restive westernmost region of Xinjiang, where many Uighurs chafe at Beijing’s rule and the limits imposed on their religion and cultural traditions.
Witnesses said that up to 3,000 rioters went on the rampage, smashing buses and overturning police barricades during several hours of violence.
Thousands of police and anti-riot troops later swept through the city, using teargas and water hoses to disperse crowds. “Now the whole city is on lockdown,” one witness said.
The violence flared days after reports of ethnic clashes between Han Chinese and Uighur workers at a toy factory in the southern Guangdong province in which two Uighurs were killed and 188 wounded.
In the late-night brawl at the Early Light toy factory in Shaoguan city, a group of Han Chinese fought with Uighurs who had been recruited to the factory recently. A rumour that Uighur workers had raped two Han Chinese girls brought swift and violent retaliations from the Chinese workers.
Police have now arrested a Han Chinese for rumour-mongering after he was found to have made up the rape report in a fit of anger after losing his job at the plant.
Riots are rare in Urumqi, where ethnic Han already outnumber the local Uighur population, and the widespread presence of riot police has for years served as an effective deterrent to those wanting to stir up anti Chinese unrest.
The latest violence erupted around the city’s Sunday market, an important weekly opportunity for Uighurs to meet.
Their gatherings take place under the watchful eye of police, always on the alert for any signs of unrest among the populace of China’s only Muslimmajority region.
Urumqi has for years been one of the most well-controlled cities in Xinjiang because of the high and rapidly growing population of Han and the large presence of security forces.
Uighurs are extremely reluctant to speak openly for fear of police retribution and are anxious that their conversations may be overheard by China’s all-pervasive secret police. Ilham Mahmut, the head of the Japan Uighur Association, said he had heard through internet communications with China that at least 300 people had been arrested by last night.
He said that the confrontation involved about 3,000 Uighur and 1,000 police who used electric cattle prods and fired gunshots into the air to try to break up the demonstration.
Dilxat Raxit, for the Germany-based World Uighur Congress, said sources told him that more than a hundred people had been detained.
Tensions are already running high in Xinjiang. On a recent visit to the fabled Silk Road trading town of Kashgar, The Times saw sullen, scared Uighurs watching with despair and resignation as officials demolished swaths of the ancient city, saying that its centuries-old mud-and-straw buildings could not protect residents against earthquakes.
They will be replaced by modern streets and the Uighurs moved out of their homes into modern apartments on the edge of town. Uighurs feel that Han immigrants to Xinjiang are depriving them of jobs and diluting their unique culture.
Days before the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing last year, two Uighurs ploughed a truck into a group of Chinese police border guards on an early morning jog in Kashgar and then attacked the survivors with knives and home-made grenades. At least 17 police were killed. Both were later executed. Xinjiang has had a reputation for unrest over recent years.