Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Crowd vents fury at police after bloodshed

Fury ... a woman shoves Chinese soldiers in riot gear as angry locals confront authorities in Urungi. "Release our husbands, free our sons," they chanted. Photo: Reuters (check the video on the SMH site)

John Garnaut Herald Correspondent in Urumqi -SMH
July 8, 2009

CHINA'S far-western Xinjiang province was again at flashpoint last night after a large crowd of distraught Uygur women carrying their babies confronted riot police in the heart of the provincial capital, Urumqi.

About 100 women in traditional Uygur dress and headscarves openly defied Chinese police - many carrying revolvers, rifles and tear-gas guns - to punch their fists in the air and demand the release of their sons and husbands, who they said had been beaten by police and taken to unknown destinations.

"Release our husbands, free our sons," chanted the women in the Uygur language. The crowd was swelled by hundreds of local residents who at one stage were beaten back by riot police with batons. Further bloodshed was narrowly averted - directly in front of the Herald - when a small group of Uygur men held back the crowd when it coalesced in a line to advance on riot police who were brandishing batons and advancing on them.

The line of riot police was engaged in a violent skirmish before being ordered to retreat. Later, senior police officers shouted amid the mayhem to restrain their troops, many of whom were armed and visibly angry.

A teenage Uygur boy next to me picked up a brick, broke it in half on the kerbside and moved to throw it at police before being persuaded to drop it.

Yesterday's extraordinary protests were fuelled by unconfirmed rumours that police had opened fire in a nearby area on Sunday night, killing many, and that mass arrests were continuing late yesterday.

The majority of protesters appeared beyond caring about their own physical safety despite, or perhaps because of, Xinjiang's recent history of protesters and rioters being met with brutal police reprisals.

The Chinese Government said 156 people were killed on Sunday night, mainly in Urumqi, by far the biggest officially acknowledged death toll from any civil unrest since the massacre in Tiananmen Square 20 years ago.

One Uygur onlooker told the Herald he had seen police shooting protesters on Sunday night - he said hundreds had been killed - but the Herald was been unable to verify any of the claims. Yesterday's protests began about 11am local time, and within 30 minutes police separated the protesting men and chased them down an adjacent lane.

The women and children remained to stage a sit-in on the bitumen of Dawen South Road, sandwiched between approaching lines of armed police in military camouflage and riot police with loaded tear gas canisters.

One young man who had incited the crowd was taken away in handcuffs but the Herald witnessed no further arrests. The women were leaving the scene about 11.45am when the Herald and other foreign journalists were asked to leave.

The incident appeared to have been inadvertently triggered and then constrained by the presence of foreign journalists who had been taken there by bus by the Government.

The tour had been intended to display the damage to burnt out car yards from Sunday and show that the tension was under control. Before the protests, a worker at the Geely car yard, who gave his name as Mr Xi, showed bruises on his arm and abdomen from rioters who swept through the area on Dawan South Road on Sunday night.

"I was protecting the yard with about 10 others when a couple of Uygurs entered," he said.

"I thought I could stop them but they chased me into the basement, where I hid under cars. But they dragged me out and beat me before I escaped back under the car again. I couldn't see clearly - I was covering my head - but I was beaten with sticks, rocks and other objects."

He said there were about 600 or 700 people in the crowd on Sunday night.

While the Herald interviewed him, before yesterday's protests, police shouted at Uygurs to disperse as I approached them, making it difficult to report their side of the story.

One young Uygur man, Atili, showed me a large bruise on his arm, which he said he received on Monday afternoon when police beat him while he was attempting to sell naan bread on the side of the road.

I asked if he had seen TV footage of the riots and he replied: "Our electricity has been cut off; we have not been allowed out even to get food."

Other Uygurs confirmed they were hungry and had not been allowed out since Sunday, even though the official police curfew applies only at night.

The short guided tour of Dawan South Road confirmed beyond doubt that large numbers of Xinjiang's Uygurs, who comprise nearly half the autonomous region's population, are fed up with decades of what they say is political, economic and physical repression under the tight leash of the Chinese Communist Party.

The cycles of protests, police violence, riots and further police repression have not ended.

Yesterday at 3.20pm more than a thousand angry Chinese vigilantes marched down the road outside the Haide Hotel and past the People's Square, one of Urumqi's most heavily guarded areas.

They were all armed with heavy, metre-long wooden and metal poles and some carried large carving knives.

"I've volunteered to protect the streets," said one man, carrying a wooden pole.

An elderly man chanted: "Protect the fruits of development."

After marching for four blocks the vigilante crowd was dispersed with tear gas, according to witnesses.


Who are the Uygurs?
They are Muslims who live in Xinjiang, an enormous oil-rich desert province to the north of Tibet. Uygurs have their own Turkic language and a rich cultural and trading history.

Why are they rioting?
The protest was to call for an inquiry into the deaths of two Uygur factory workers in southern China last month. However, the Uygur population has grown increasingly resentful of Chinese rule.

Does Xinjiang want independence from China?
Communist officials say there is a threat from Uygur nationalists. After the September 11, 2001, attacks, China pushed the US to classify two little-known separatist groups, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and the East Turkestan Liberation Organisation, as terrorist organisations. Several Uygurs were held in Guantanamo Bay. But there remains scant evidence of a serious separatist movement.

Telegraph, London

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