URUMQI, China (Reuters) - China raised the death toll from ethnic rioting in Xinjiang, giving for the first time the ethnicity of the dead, and a big security presence in the city at the center of the strife prevented protests on Saturday.
The official Xinhua news agency said 184 people had died in the July 5 riots in Urumqi, the Xinjiang regional capital, and 137 of those killed were Han Chinese, who form the majority of China’s 1.3 billion population. The previous death toll was 156.
The latest figure included 46 Uighurs, the largely Muslim people of Xinjiang who share cultural bonds with Central Asian peoples. All but one were men. Uighurs, once a sizeable majority in Xinjiang, now make up 46 percent of its 21.3 million people, according to government statistics.
Xinhua said the other person killed in the attacks that erupted last weekend was a member of the Hui ethnic group, which is Muslim but culturally akin to Han Chinese.
The brief report did not say whether any of the dead were killed by security forces.
The reaction on Urumqi streets to the official death toll reflected the deepening ethnic divide in Xinjiang, with Uighurs expressing disbelief in the number.
“That’s the Han people’s number. We have our own number,” said Akumjia, a Uighur resident, as he eyed security forces who had cordoned off a street where there was an outburst of protest near a mosque and then arrests on Friday. A security forces helicopter buzzed overhead.
“Maybe many, many more Uighurs died. The police were scared and lost control.”
Close to where he stood, what appeared to be a spray of bullet holes could be seen on the glass front of a Bank of China office. There were no bullets among the shards. The government has not said what kind of forces suppressed the bloody rioting. Many Uighur residents say they heard or saw gunfire.
Chinese authorities had delayed releasing the ethnic breakdown of the dead, possibly out of concern it would further inflame the situation.
Several Han Chinese residents said distrust of Uighurs was likely to persist.
“Uighurs also died ... But then they blame Han for being so angry about the killing and looting,” said Zhao Hong, a Han resident who said she saw some of the bloodshed from her home window before hiding.
Beijing does not want to lose its grip on the 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.
Zhou Yongkang, the top domestic security official in China’s ruling Communist Party, said the country now had to “vigorously prosecute this tough battle to protect stability in Xinjiang,” the Xinjiang Daily reported on Saturday.
Human Rights Watch said that the government had deployed some 20,000 troops in Urumqi since the July 5 riots, which broke out after security forces broke up a protest over the deaths of Uighur workers in southern China.
The show of force appears to be preventing fresh unrest, and the police have issued a ban on protests and “illegal assembly,” Xinhua said.
“Police will disperse such illegal assemblies according to the law and are entitled to take necessary means if the crowd refuses to disperse,” the report said, without elaborating.
Parts of Urumqi remain tense, especially Uighur neighborhoods, and thousands of troops and police are on guard. There was a brief demonstration on Friday, the main Muslim day of prayer, after some mosques were opened briefly.
On Saturday, anti-riot troops again kept a close watch on Uighur residents, and loudspeakers on vehicles blasted orders that Uighurs should stay at home and accept the government’s line on the unrest. There were no public protests.
Security chief Zhou Yongkang continued his tour of Xinjiang. State television showed him in Kashgar, a restive city in the region’s south, inspecting riot police.
The show of force is likely to prove popular with most Han Chinese, including those in Xinjiang, who believe their government has done much to help Uighurs.
But a few dissenters have issued an online petition urging the government to rethink its policies and to shift from taking some steps to help minorities to giving full rights to all.
A statement (http://truthreconciliation.blog.com) said the petition was launched by three Chinese nationals, one a Uighur.
Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Shanghai; editing by Michael Roddy