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140 killed in ethnic violence in China

Citywide rioting in Urumqi pits the Han Chinese majority against the Uighur minority. More than 800 are said to be hurt as buses are torched, stores looted and people pulled from cars and beaten.

July 07, 2009|David Pierson and Barbara Demick

URUMQI, CHINA, AND BEIJING — Hundreds of weeping Uighur women, enraged by the arrests of their husbands and sons, confronted armed Chinese police in the traditional market in Urumqi this morning as the worst ethnic violence here in years dragged on for a third day.

By the latest count of the Chinese media, 156 people are dead and 800 wounded, but the unrest seemed to be continuing despite an overwhelming security presence in China's northwesternmost Xinjiang region, the traditional homeland of the Uighurs, a Turkic minority.

Chinese authorities accuse Uighur rioters of going on a savage rampage Sunday in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi in which civilians were pulled out of cars and shops, beaten and stabbed for no other reason that being Han, the ethnic majority in China.

The women protesting today said that thousands of males, some as young as 14, had been arbitrarily taken away by Chinese security forces, regardless of their involvement.

"We don't know where our brothers, sons and husbands are," cried 23-year-old Zai Nuran. Her husband, she said, had been out selling sheep all day and was in his underwear at home when police burst into the house. "There were over 20 riot police with batons, who started beating him," she said.

At about 11 a.m. today, there were roughly 300 Uighur demonstrators, mostly women, some with children, draped in bright head scarves, pumping their fists in the air. A few fainted, including one who was pregnant. In the narrow alleys of the bazaar, the protesters were hemmed in on all sides by a far larger showing of security personnel with dogs, guns and water cannons.

"Be calm and disperse," pleaded a Uighur-speaking policeman to no avail.

After a standoff that lasted about an hour, Chinese authorities who had been escorting Western journalists through the city ordered the reporters onto a bus to leave the market area. It is unclear what happened to the protesters.

The rioting was possibly the deadliest incident of social unrest in China since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Although Xinjiang has for years been prone to sporadic riots, bombings and gang violence, Urumqi itself -- a city of 2 million people -- had been held up by the Chinese as a showplace of ethnic harmony. That myth was punctured by the violence that erupted Sunday.

Tony Yu, a 26-year-old native of Urumqi, said this violence was far worse than any in the past.

"It's important that Han and Uighur people can live together," said Yu, an account manager for a tomato paste manufacturer. "But I feel like this incident has broken the relationship and trust."

Official news sources reported that the People's Hospital, one of the largest medical facilities in Urumqi, treated 291 riot victims, including 233 Han and 39 Uighurs. Of those admitted to the hospital, 17 died.

With his left cheek the size of a grapefruit, a bloodied Chen Shengli walked out of the hospital Monday night into the eerily quiet city center.

A night earlier, the 41-year-old Han truck driver was wounded in the clashes between Uighurs and authorities. Chen, who needed four stitches, said he was pulled randomly from his flatbed and beaten by a mob of about 20 Uighurs.

He was able to escape only after being led to safety by a Uighur woman who urged the rioters to stop. He said he regretted not being able to rescue an elderly man who was being pelted by the crowd.

It was not yet clear whether any one group suffered the brunt of the violence, nor how many security officers were killed or injured. Uighur voices have been largely drowned out by China's censors, who have blocked Twitter, Facebook and various Uighur sites that might offer competing versions of what happened.

There were signs that news of the riots had led to additional protests in other Uighur communities in Xinjiang province. State media reported that authorities dispersed about 200 demonstrators Monday in Kashgar, about 900 miles west of Urumqi. The protesters had gathered at the Id Kah Mosque, the largest mosque in China, before authorities secured the area, the reports said.

"The information we are getting is that this is sort of spreading," Rebiya Kadeer, head of the World Uyghur Congress, an exile group, said at a news conference Monday in Washington. "Because of the tragic event, many people were killed and a lot of families and friends were killed. So others may have joined in other towns as well to protest."

Uighurs say they were trying to hold a peaceful protest Sunday afternoon at People's Square over the killing last month of two young Uighur men in Guangdong and that it turned violent after the paramilitary forces intervened.

Demonstrators today in Urumqi complained bitterly about their treatment by police, a recurring grievance for young Uighurs. A 22-year-old man named Abdul Ali said that police pushed him around and stole his cellphone and about $75.

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