September 6, 2009 / 2:19 AM / 10 years ago

China's Urumqi still edgy after officials sacked

URUMQI, China (Reuters) - Nerves remained raw in China’s far western city of Urumqi, in turmoil over a wave of reported syringe attacks, and a small band of protesters again called on the region’s top official to step down.

Chinese women walk pass Chinese security forces as they secure a street in Urumqi in China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region September 6, 2009. Tensions lifted in China's far western city of Urumqi, in turmoil over a spate of needle attacks, after two high officials were fired and doctors' reassurances relieved angry and fearful city residents. REUTERS/Nir Elias

Calm descended on most of Urumqi after two high officials were fired and doctors reassured fearful city residents, but another alleged needle stabbing on Sunday sparked the angry outburst by dozens of Han Chinese. Police dispersed them by firing tear gas, according to witnesses.

On Thursday and Friday tens of thousands called for the resignation of Xinjiang region Communist Party Secretary Wang Lequan, saying he had failed to ensure their security after hundreds of reported syringe attacks blamed by authorities on separatists. Some tried to storm Uighur areas.

Han Chinese said they were relieved by military doctors’ assurances that the needle attacks would not spread AIDS, but not fully satisfied by the sacking of city party secretary Li Zhi and regional chief of police Liu Yaohua.

“Firing the two leaders should make things better. But it’s too early to say if the needle attacks are over,” said a fruit seller surnamed Ge.

The Xinhua news agency did not give a reason for Li and Liu’s departure. Both had been in office on July 5, when 197 people, mostly Han Chinese, the country’s majority ethnic group, were killed in rioting by Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim group native to the region.

Han Chinese took to the streets this week in fear and anger, saying the government had failed to prosecute the rioters and to protect citizens, as rumors of syringe attacks swirled around a city that has been cut off from the Internet and has had limited phone access for two months.

“We thought you could get AIDS or something, and kids and women were stabbed so it was really terrifying,” said a Han Chinese man surnamed Shou, who sat on a stoop with friends studying the doctors’ statements in the newspaper.

“Now, we know that even if you are stabbed, it’s not a big deal, so that’s a relief.”

Hundreds of troops patrolled streets near the city center, called in to clear a small protest after word spread of an attack inside a wholesale market on Sunday.

“I heard that somebody was pricked with a needle inside. They were Uighurs,” said a Han man.

VISITORS SCARED OFF

Uighur residents returned to shops, saying that the July riots and this week’s demonstrations had destroyed business and scared off visitors to the city.

“I believe that there were some needle attacks by terrorists. But it has really hurt the rest of us, who are completely innocent,” said Sajida, a Uighur merchant.

“Han are the majority here and there aren’t very many of us to begin with, and when you walk down the street the Han look at us with such hatred and suspicion. They might beat us up. For the past few days I didn’t dare leave my home.”

None of the cases or the charges announced so far seemed to support government assertions that the syringe attacks were coordinated by separatists trying to foment unrest.

Four Uighurs had been indicted for “endangering public security” in connection with the attacks, and four others were to be formally arrested, the city’s procurator said.

Police have detained 25 Uighurs over the attacks.

Of those indicted, two were heroin addicts who used a syringe to rob a taxi driver, and a third addict used a syringe to fight off police trying to arrest him, procurator Udgar Abdulrahman said on Saturday. The fourth stuck a fruit seller with a needle.

“I think the version the government put out was unconvincing, and I think this contributed to the mismanagement of the crisis,” said Nicholas Bequelin, China researcher for advocacy group Human Rights Watch, who closely follows developments in Xinjiang.

“I think so far the authorities have failed to substantiate their initial alarmist communiques that gave credence to these rumors.”

Government reports said 531 people had lodged reports of needle attacks as of September 4, but only 171 showed any physical signs of an injury. Doctors said 22 were being monitored for signs of infection, but dismissed as unlikely the possibility that any would have contracted AIDS or other diseases.

Slideshow (8 Images)

The official Xinhua news agency said late on Saturday that “some of those who said they had been stabbed actually suffered from mosquitoes’ stings or other psychogenic reasons.”

But the agency said anyone who stabbed others with syringes containing harmful substances or contaminated by drug use could receive sentences of between three years and death.

Despite the demonstrations and sackings, regional Communist Party Secretary Wang Lequan was unlikely to be dismissed soon, given his power and his past record as an effective enforcer of central government policy in Xinjiang, Bequelin said.

Additional reporting by Royston Chan in Urumqi and Chris Buckley and Simon Rabinovitch in Beijing; editing by Andrew Roche

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