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Central Asia evacuates citizens from riot-torn Xinjang

ALMATY (Reuters) - China’s western neighbours Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan said on Thursday they were evacuating their citizens from the restive region of Xinjiang following days of ethnic rioting against Chinese rule.

Chinese soldiers in riot gear stand and sit at the main city square in the centre of Urumqi in China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region July 9, 2009. REUTERS/David Gray

Clashes between Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese have left 156 people dead and 1,080 wounded since Sunday in a region where the Uighur minority has long complained about repression and discrimination.

Mainly Muslim Central Asia is home to the biggest Uighur community outside China, but despite sharing a similar linguistic and cultural heritage, they have traditionally uneasy relations with the local population.

Central Asian governments, while officially welcoming their presence, are wary of what they see as Uighur aspirations to set up their own independent state between China and Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan, home to 300,000 Uighurs, said it had brought back more than 1,200 citizens from the riot-hit region about 800 km (500 miles) from its financial capital, Almaty.

Central Asia, a region divided among five nations run by authoritarian leaders, is worried the latest violence may spill over into its ethnically diverse territory and has largely supported China’s position on the Uighur issue.

“What is happening there is China’s internal affair,” said a Kazakh foreign ministry spokesman.

No protests have been reported on the Central Asian side of the border -- a thinly populated stretch of barren land.

Kazakhstan had earlier warned its citizens against travelling to Xinjiang and agreed with China’s embassy to stop issuing tourist visas to people planning to go there - a blow to thousands of traders involved in brisk cross-border trade.

Sitting on big oil and gas reserves, the region is seen by China as a new source of energy. Dwarfed by China’s economic might, regional leaders have never opposed their giant neighbour.

Kyrgyzstan, an impoverished nation of five million, said it had evacuated more than 100 people from the Xinjiang capital Urumqi and was arranging to bring back dozens more.

“At the moment Kyrgyz embassy staff are in Urumqi to provide assistance to Kyrgyz citizens,” the Kyrgyz foreign ministry said in a statement. Tajikistan, which also borders China, has not commented on the violence.

Uighurs, who ran a vast empire of their own around the 8th century stretching from Central Asia to the Pacific, came to Central Asia en masse in the middle of the 20th century following a failed bid to re-establish their own state.