BEIJING (Reuters) - China says a riot that shook the capital of western Xinjiang region Sunday was a plot against its power, after at least three people died in the eruption of ethnic unrest and authorities launched a crackdown.
Hundreds of locals took to the streets of the regional capital, Urumqi, some burning and smashing vehicles and confronting ranks of police and anti-riot troops.
The riot followed a protest in Urumqi against government handling of a late June clash between Han Chinese and Uighur factory workers in far southern China, where two Uighurs died in Shaoguan.
Monday morning “the situation was under control,” the state-run Xinhua news agency reported. There were no immediate reports of violence in other parts of Xinjiang.
But a senior official there swiftly delivered the government claim that the unrest was the work of extremist forces abroad, signaling a security crackdown in the already tense and strategic region near Pakistan and central Asia.
“After the (Shaoguan) incident, the three forces abroad strived to beat this up and seized it as an opportunity to attack us, inciting street protests,” Nuer Baikeli, governor of Xinjiang, said in a speech shown on Xinjiang television.
The “three forces” refer to groups the government says engage in separatism, militant action and religious extremism.
“In Xinjiang, nothing is worth speaking of without stability,” said Nuer Baikeli, a Uighur.
Officials ordered traffic off the streets in parts of Urumqi, a city of 2.3 million residents 3,270 km (2,050 miles) west of Beijing, to ensure there was no fresh unrest, Xinhua added.
“The city is basically under martial law,” Yang Jin, a dried fruit merchant in Urumqi, said by telephone.
“It would be wrong for anyone to say he wasn’t afraid, but the situation looks calm for now.”
An unnamed Chinese official said the “unrest was masterminded by the World Uyghur (also spelt Uighur) Congress led by Rebiya Kadeer,” according to Xinhua. “This was a crime of violence that was pre-meditated and organized,” said the report.
Rebiya Kadeer is a Uighur businesswoman now in exile in the United States after years in jail, and accused of separatist activities. She did not answer calls for comment.
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 dominance of economic opportunities.
“They’re blaming us as a way to distract the Uighurs’ attention from the discrimination and oppression that sparked this protest,” said Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress in exile in Sweden.
“It began as a peaceful assembly. There were thousands of people shouting to stop ethnic discrimination ... They are tired of suffering in silence.”
The government’s claims of conspiracy by pro-independence exiles echo the handling of rioting across Tibetan areas in March last year, which Beijing also called a plot hatched abroad.
The unrest underscores that Xinjiang, no less than Tibet, faces volatile ethnic tensions that have accompanied China’s growing economic and political stake in its western frontiers.
Xinjiang is the doorway to China’s trade and energy ties with central Asia, and is itself rich in gas, minerals and farm produce. But many Uighurs say they see little of that wealth.
“The government is applying its ready-made template that all ethnic tension is caused by external plots,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a China researcher for Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group, who has long studied Xinjiang.
“This incident could further polarize ethnic groups in Xinjiang ... The official reaction is going to be pretty much what we saw in Tibet — more repression, tighter control.”
Chinese state television showed rioters throwing rocks at police and overturning a police car, and smoke billowing from burning vehicles.
“I personally saw several Han people being stabbed. Many people on buses were scared witless,” Zhang Wanxin, a Urumqi resident, told Reuters by telephone.
Late Sunday, Xinhua had said “three ordinary people of the Han ethnic group” were killed. But its latest report on Monday merely said that “a number of innocent members of the public and one officer of the People’s Armed Police were killed.”
Alim Seytoff, of the Uyghur American Association in Washington D.C., said he believed Uighurs may also have died in the clashes.
Seytoff emailed pictures showing hundreds of locals confronting police in Urumqi, armored riot-control vehicles patrolling streets, wounded and bloodied civilians lying on streets, and ranks of anti-riot police with shields and clubs.
Almost half of Xinjiang’s 20 million people are Uighurs. The population of Urumqi is mostly Han Chinese, and the city is under tight police security even in normal times.
Additional reporting by Benjamin Kang Lim and Yu Le; Editing by Jerry Norton