Tensions Remain As Chinese Troops Take Control in Urumqi

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Peter Parks / AFP / Getty

Ethnic Uighur women grab a riot police officer as they protest in Urumqi, in China's far west Xinjiang province, on July 7, 2009

Three days after ethnic clashes left 156 dead in the city of Urumqi, the Chinese government is still struggling to bring calm and order to the Xinjiang capital. On July 8, Communist Party leader Li Zhi announced that the government would seek the death penalty for anyone found responsible for the killings as President Hu Jintao flew home from Italy, cutting short his visit to the G-8 summit. While the city hasn't seen a return to fighting on the scale it witnessed on July 5, scattered outbursts are stoking fears that violence could erupt again, and tensions on all sides of the conflict are still high.

Masses of security forces paraded through the streets of Urumqi on the morning of July 8. Some 40 trucks filled with rifle-toting People's Armed Police crept through the largely Uighur area near the Grand Bazaar, in the south of the city, as a military helicopter made sweeps overhead. Dozens of Uighurs eating breakfast at street stalls walked out to watch the procession. "There are so many," said one young man, shaking his head in disbelief.

That was the signal the Chinese government meant to send. It was in this district that rioting by hundreds of Uighurs, a Turkic minority group that comprise about 15% of the city's population, exploded after police blocked a protest prompted by the deaths of two Uighurs at a factory in the coastal Guangdong province in late June. The fighting, which targeted the city's majority Han Chinese, left 156 people dead, officials say, and more than 1,000 injured.

On July 7, thousands of club-wielding Han Chinese mobilized on the streets, clearly intent on revenge. Military police blocked them from moving south into Uighur neighborhoods, at times firing tear gas. Xinjiang People's Hospital in the city center took in at least a dozen Uighurs who were beaten. One patient, 22-year-old Abdul, says he was attacked by a crowd of about 100 Han men. He suffered a head injury and a broken arm.

There was fear that the violence might spread overnight. The government enforced a curfew, and in the morning Uighur districts appeared largely undisturbed. On July 8 small groups gathered in both Uighur and Han areas, but few people were carrying clubs and knives. There were reports of scattered attacks, but no large-scale violence. Dozens of trucks and hundreds of troops lined Renmin Road, a major east-west corridor that roughly separates the Uighur and Han districts.

State-run media and sound trucks were rebroadcasting a speech by Xinjiang's Communist Party Secretary, Wang Lequan, encouraging residents to focus their anger on "outside forces" rather than on Uighurs. "Comrades, this sort of action is totally unnecessary," he said of the Han street mobs. "Our government forces are enough to defeat the evildoers."

The government has blamed the unrest on Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur activist who lives in the U.S. She has denied any connection to the violence, and says it was the Chinese government's crackdown on the peaceful demonstration by Uighurs that led to the riot.

Since Hu's return from Italy, the country's top officials are now focused on the Xinjiang unrest. Minister of Public Security Meng Jianzhu addressed more than 100 police officers clad in all-black riot gear on a street near the People's Square in Urumqi, telling them that they were responsible for the people's safety. Security forces have come from as far away as central Shanxi and eastern Anhui provinces, and the influx of troops has brought the city largely under control.

But healing the wounds of the past week will be much tougher. Li Qingcheng, a 43-year-old Han bus driver, suffered injuries to his head, back and hands when a mob of Uighur men attacked his bus during the riot on July 5. He said the men smashed the bus windows and then went after passengers. "This society has gone crazy," he said from his bed at Xinjiang People's Hospital. "This was a good society, and then they did something like this."