At least 140 people have been killed in rioting in the capital of China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang.
The government has blamed exiled Muslim separatists for the area’s worst case of ethnic unrest in years.
Hundreds of rioters have been arrested, the official Xinhua news agency reported, after rock-throwing Uighurs took to the streets of the regional capital on Sunday, some burning and smashing vehicles and confronting ranks of anti-riot police.
Urumqi residents were unable to access the internet on Monday, several said. “The city is basically under martial law,” accordinding to Yang Jin, a dried fruit merchant.
The unrest underscores the volatile ethnic tensions that have accompanied China’s growing economic and political stake in its western frontiers.
A senior official swiftly delivered the government claim that the unrest was the work of extremist forces abroad, signalling a security crackdown in the strategic region near Pakistan and central Asia.
Li Zhi, the Communist Party boss of Urumqi told a news conference that the death toll from the rioting had risen to 140, the semi-official China News Agency said. Xinhua said 816 people were injured and hospitalised.
“Police have tightened security in downtown Urumqi streets and at key institutions such as power and natural gas companies and TV stations to prevent large-scale riots,” Xinhua quoted Xinjiang police chief Liu Yaohua as saying.
Police rounded up “several hundred” who participated in the violence, including more than 10 key players who fanned unrest, Xinhua said, and are searching for 90 others.
The riot in Urumqi, a city of 2.3 million residents 3,270 km (2,050 miles) west of Beijing, followed a protest against government handling of a June clash between Han Chinese and Uighur factory workers in southern China, where two Uighurs died in Shaoguan.
The China Daily put the number of protesters at 300 to 500 while the exiled Uighur American Association had it as high as 3,000.
“After the (Shaoguan) incident, the three forces abroad strived to beat this up and seized it as an opportunity to attack us, inciting street protests,” Xinjiang governor Nuer Baikeli, a Uighur, said in a speech shown on Xinjiang television.
The “three forces” refer to groups the government says engage in separatism, militant action and religious extremism.
An unnamed Chinese official said the “unrest was masterminded by the World Uighur Congress led by Rebiya Kadeer”, according to Xinhua. “This was a crime of violence that was pre-meditated and organised,” said the report.
Rebiya Kadeer is a Uighur businesswoman now in exile in the United States after years in jail, and accused of separatist activities. She did not answer calls for comment.
Exiled Uighur groups adamantly rejected the Chinese government claim of a plot. They said the riot was an outpouring of pent-up anger over government policies and Han Chinese dominance of economic opportunities.
“They’re blaming us as a way to distract the Uighurs’ attention from the discrimination and oppression that sparked this protest,” said Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the World Uighur Congress in exile in Sweden.
The government’s claims of conspiracy by pro-independence exiles echo the handling of rioting across Tibetan areas in March last year, which Beijing also called a plot hatched abroad.
Xinjiang is the doorway to China’s trade and energy ties with central Asia, and is itself rich in gas, minerals and farm produce. But many Uighurs say they see little of that wealth.
Chinese state television showed rioters throwing rocks at police and overturning a police car, and smoke billowing from burning vehicles.
“I personally saw several Han people being stabbed. Many people on buses were scared witless,” Zhang Wanxin, a Urumqi resident, said by telephone.
Alim Seytoff, of the Uyghur American Association in Washington D.C., emailed pictures showing hundreds of locals confronting police in Urumqi, armoured riot-control vehicles patrolling streets, wounded and bloodied civilians lying on streets, and ranks of anti-riot police with shields and clubs.
Almost half of Xinjiang’s 20 million people are Uighurs. The population of Urumqi is mostly Han Chinese, and the city is under tight police security even in normal times.
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