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China says it holds 718 in Xinjiang over July riots

BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese police have detained 718 people suspected of involvement in deadly ethnic rioting in northwestern Xinjiang region last month, the official Xinhua agency said on Tuesday.

Armed Chinese policemen in riot gear walk around a slum area after they made arrests outside a mosque after prayers in the city of Urumqi in China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region July 10, 2009. REUTERS/David Gray

It was not clear if this number represented the total number of people held after the riots because the report did not mention anybody being released. Officials had previously said that more than 1,500 had been detained.

The report cited Chen Zhuangwei, head of the Public Security Bureau in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital.

Separately, state radio reported that authorities have arrested 83 suspects -- the first such formal arrests after the riots. The suspects included both Uighurs and Han Chinese, and the range of allegations spanned murder, arson, assault and disturbing social order, it added.

The representative of an exiled Uighur group said the Chinese numbers could not be trusted.

“We do not believe this figure of 718 detained. Maybe legal proceedings have been started against only this many, but a much bigger number is still being held,” said Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress. “We want an independent investigation to establish the correct number.”

In Xinjiang’s worst ethnic violence in decades, Uighur rioters attacked majority Han Chinese in Urumqi on July 5 after taking to the streets to protest against attacks on Uighur workers at a factory in south China in June which left two Uighurs dead. Hans in Urumqi sought revenge two days later.

Uighurs, a Turkic people who are largely Muslim and share linguistic and cultural bonds with Central Asia, make up almost half of Xinjiang’s 20 million people.

The violence left 197 people dead, mostly Han Chinese, and wounded more than 1,600, according to official figures.

Xinjiang has long been a tightly controlled hotbed of ethnic tensions, fostered by an economic gap between many Uighurs and Han Chinese, government controls on religion and culture and an influx of Han migrants who now are the majority in Urumqi.

Beijing does not want to lose its grip on a vast territory that borders Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, has abundant oil reserves and is China’s largest natural gas-producing region.

Reporting by Simon Rabinovitch; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani