URUMQI, China (Reuters) - China sacked the top official of the strife-torn city of Urumqi as well as the regional police chief on Saturday, as the town crept back to uneasy calm after days of sometimes deadly protests that inflamed ethnic enmity.
The official Xinhua news agency did not explain why the city’s Communist Party Secretary, Li Zhi, was replaced by Zhu Hailun, head of Xinjiang region’s law-and-order committee.
But Li presided over the city during deadly unrest on July 5 when a protest by Muslim Uighurs, who call Xinjiang their homeland, gave way to deadly rioting that left 197 people dead, most of them members of China’s majority Han ethnic group.
Urumqi was put under heavy security again this week after three days of fresh unrest, as thousands of Han Chinese residents protested over a rash of reported syringe stabbings they blamed on Uighurs, a minority in the city.
Officials said five people died in protests on Thursday. Xinjiang police chief Liu Yaohua was replaced by Zhu Changjie, party chief of Xinjiang’s Aksu Prefecture.
The sackings could feed more speculation about the future of Wang Lequan, the regional Communist Party boss, who has barely appeared in state media in the past couple of days, after he pleaded from a balcony with Han crowds demanding his ouster.
“They should replace Wang Lequan ... Of course this will not be totally fair, but we wish to have a secure environment,” said one resident, who did not wish to give his name.
Troops used tear gas to break up a group of people, apparently Han Chinese, gathered near city government offices in Urumqi on Saturday morning, Cable TV of Hong Kong reported.
But shops, buses and roads also began to come back to life, watched over by thousands of police and anti-riot troops. Many were posted at entrances to Uighur neighborhoods.
The spasm of unrest has alarmed the central government, coming less than a month before China marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic on October 1.
Government warnings of stabbings fed an upsurge of fear and anger among the city’s Han Chinese, culminating in the protests, and talks of fresh attacks persisted.
But details of four indictments give little support for government assertions that separatists coordinated what were originally described as syringe attacks.
Three Uighur men and one woman were indicted on charges of “endangering public security” connected with the spate of stabbings, city procurator Udgar Abdulrahman said on Saturday. The arrest of four others was approved.
Abdulrahman said that of the four, two were drug users who robbed a cab driver by threatening him with a syringe. One was a 19-year old who stabbed a fruit seller with a needle, and the last resisted arrest with a syringe.
He said the attacks were organized, but did not say by whom.
More than 500 people have registered as having been stabbed, but just over 100 had detectable pricks, redness, or other physical signs, military doctors told reporters. Of those, 22 were being monitored for signs of infection.
“The needle-stabbing attacks of recent days were a continuation of the July 5 incident,” the official People’s Daily quoted Meng Jianzhu, minister of public security, who flew to Urumqi to oversee security, as saying.
“Their goal is to wreck ethnic unity and create splits in the motherland.”
At least 197 people, most of them Han Chinese, died in Urumqi in the July 5 Uighur protests that China called a separatist attack. Han residents have voiced anger that Uighurs accused of rioting have yet to be tried.
Xinjiang’s population of 21 million is divided mainly between Uighurs, long the region’s majority, and Han Chinese, many of whom arrived in recent decades. Uighurs complain Han get the best jobs. Most Urumqi residents are Han Chinese.
Additional reporting by Royston Chan in Urumqi and Chris Buckley in Beijing; Writing by Chris Buckley; Editing by Michael Roddy