KASHGAR, China (Reuters) - The deserted streets and shuttered shops in the usually bustling Chinese areas of Kashgar city Wednesday stand as testament to the splintered ethnic lines in the western region of Xinjiang.
Days after Uighur assailants stormed a restaurant, killed the owner and a waiter, then hacked four people to death on a nearby street over the weekend, Han Chinese residents — the country’s predominant ethnic group but a minority in Kashgar — remained on edge.
The attacks were the latest burst of violence to jolt Xinjiang, where many Uighurs, a mostly Muslim Turkic-speaking people from the region, resent the influx of Han Chinese.
“People here feel genuine terror, we definitely feel unsafe here,” said a 21-year-old man surnamed Huo from China’s southwestern Sichuan province.
“That scene was just too cruel. There were corpses, blood everywhere. No one dares to come out on the streets.”
About 200 enraged Chinese residents protested two nights ago, angered that “innocent lives were taken,” Huo said.
A 43-year-old businessman surnamed Wang who has been living in Kashgar for more than a decade, said he might leave next year, adding that “there’s just been too many incidents.”
The roads are now occupied by troops at security checkpoints and paramilitary officers are carrying batons and rifles as they walk the streets. Stores have kept their doors shut for days.
“In the past, we used to get along, but now I distrust them,” said a Kashgar Chinese shopkeeper, who declined to be identified, referring to the Uighurs and Han Chinese.
“The violent attacks targeted one whole race — the Han Chinese. How am I supposed to trust them now?”
Chinese officials blamed the recent attack on Uighur Islamic militants campaigning for an independent homeland, and said the ringleaders received training in making firearms and explosives in Pakistan before returning to China.
China’s Foreign Ministry Wednesday praised Pakistan as a firm partner against terror and religious extremism, playing down the risk that ties could be strained.
Rebiah Kadeer, exiled president of the World Uyghur Congress, blamed “discriminatory” Chinese government policies for creating an “environment of hopelessness.”
At Kashgar’s District No. 1 hospital Wednesday, Wang Jindong, a 20-year-old Han Chinese worker from the central province of Henan injured in the attack, was nursing a head injury and swollen black eye.
“A car hit me and we flew. After that, I don’t remember anything. There was a lot of blood,” he said.
“From now on, I’ll only go out in the day. At night, I wouldn’t dare to go out.”
As dusk crept over downtown Kashgar, children rode about on bicycles in the Uighur quarter, while men in skull caps clutched prayer beads as they prayed at the Id Kah mosque, China’s largest, during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan.
Juma Tayir, the imam at the Id Kah mosque, told reporters there have been no restrictions on any religious activities during Ramadan. The World Uyghur Congress had said China was preventing Uighurs from observing Ramadan.
Chinese media had muted coverage of the weekend’s deadly attacks, but analysts say tough words about Monday’s shooting of two Uighur suspects appeared to reflect an effort to avoid public backlash over a cluster of attacks in Xinjiang.
“These incidents will definitely affect the local economy and their plans to build Kashgar into a special economic zone,” said Yuan Xiaojia, a 29-year-old Chinese Kashgar resident.
“The economy is built on people, but many Han Chinese are afraid now.”
He said that the standard of living for Uighurs have improved considerably, but added that “the government must create the conditions for the society to be harmonious.”
Many Uighurs complain of discrimination in the jobs market and say that government efforts to boost development in Xinjiang have mainly benefited the Han and attracted more to move there.
Tensions have prompted spates of violence, including the unrest between Han Chinese and Uighurs that killed nearly 200 people in the regional capital Urumqi in July 2009.
Worried about growing violence, China has turned its attention to boosting development in Xinjiang — an oil and gas rich region strategically vital to Beijing. It has also sought to provide better job opportunities, especially for Uighurs, in an attempt to address some of the root causes.
Kashgar has a population of about 600,000, about 80 percent are Uighurs, according to the city government’s website.
When asked whether he likes the Han Chinese, a Uighur man said: “No. They have bad hearts.”
Additional reporting by Michael Martina in Beijing and Maxim Duncan in Kashgar; Editing by Ron Popeski