At least 140 people have been killed in rioting in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region, with the government blaming exiled separatists for the traditionally Muslim area’s worst case of unrest in years.
Hundreds of people have been arrested, the official Xinhua news agency said, after protestors from the Uighur minority took to the streets of the regional capital on Sunday, burning and smashing vehicles and shops, and clashing with anti-riot police.
Along with Tibet, Xinjiang is one of the most politically sensitive regions in China, and in both places the government has sought to maintain its grip by controlling religious and cultural life while promising economic growth and prosperity.
But minorities have long complained that Han Chinese have reaped most of the benefits from official subsidies, while making locals feel like outsiders in their own homes.
No figures have been given on the ethnic identity of the dead but a senior security official said that many of the bodies he saw were Han Chinese, suggesting an explosion of pent-up anger against the economically dominant group.
“It was like a war zone here, with many bodies of ethnic Han people lying on the road,” Xinhua quoted Huang Yabo, deputy director of the Urumqi Public Security Bureau saying.
OVERSEAS FORCES BLAMED
The death toll from the riot in Urumqi, 3,270 km (2,050 miles) west of Beijing, was 140 on Monday and expected to rise further, with over 800 people injured, Xinhua quoted Xinjiang police chief Liu Yaohua saying.
But 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 economic dominance.
The riot followed a protest about government handling of a June clash between Han Chinese and Uighurs in Southern China, where two Uighurs died, after a false allegation that six Uighurs had gangraped a Han Chinese woman.
Almost half of Xinjiang’s 20 million people are Uighurs, but the population of Urumqi is mostly Han Chinese.
“These incidents reflect the complete failure of government policies in ethnic minority areas, although there is no justification for the violence,” said Nicholas Bequelin at Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong.
“I personally saw several Han people being stabbed. Many people on buses were scared witless,” Zhang Wanxin, a Urumqi resident, said by telephone.
Admissions at the People’s Hospitals, one of the biggest in Urumqi, also suggested Han Chinese were targeted.
Xinhua said the hospital received 291 people of whom 17 died later. Among them 233 were Han Chinese, 39 were Uighurs, while the rest were from other ethnic minorities.