BEIJING (Reuters) - Mysterious needle attacks have spread to new cities in China’s restive far-western region of Xinjiang, the China Daily said on Friday, although once again the assaults appear to be a mix of real and imagined.
Nearly 600 people in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, home to the native Muslim Uighurs, have said they were stabbed with needles over the last two weeks, leading to mass demonstrations by Han Chinese against a government they said could not guarantee their safety.
Nine suspects were detained in the cities of Hotan, Altay and Kashgar, the China Daily said.
The pattern of real and imagined attacks appears to be continuing. Of nine reported attacks in Hotan, three were actually pricked, while in Altay, four of five reported attacks were false alarms and in Kashgar, three of five were false alarms, the paper said, citing local officials.
Officials and state media blamed the attacks in Urumqi on separatists bent on destroying ethnic unity.
On July 5, a demonstration by Uighurs turned into a riot in which 197 people, mostly Han Chinese, were killed. Han Chinese launched revenge attacks two days later.
Since then, Urumqi has been cut off from Internet access, international phone calls, and most text messaging, to avoid a repeat of the violence. The result is that rumors reign supreme.
Authorities requested the arrest of 295 people in the July 5 riots, out of hundreds detained, and 51 people have been indicted in 14 cases, the Xinhua news agency said on Friday.
A police text message was the spark that ignited the rash of reports in the divided city of Urumqi. Five people died in unrest last week and tens of thousands poured into the streets to demand the ouster of the powerful regional Party Secretary, Wang Lequan.
“Recently, several residents were attacked by hypodermic syringes. Local police security departments have also uncovered a case in which assailants used syringes to attack passers-by,” read the text message, sent to Urumqi residents on August 31.
“Please don’t panic over the incident, and inform police officers if you find any suspects.”
Panic they did.
By September 4, 513 people had turned up at police stations to report they had been jabbed, stabbed or pricked. They were tested for HIV, hepatitis and sexually transmitted diseases, adding to fears that the attacks would spread AIDS. At least another 77 attacks have since been reported.
On Sept 3, Han Chinese crowded into People’s Square demanding Wang’s resignation for not ensuring their safety during the July riots, or against the mystery stabbers. The five died on Sept 3, when crowds beat up a Uighur man accused of jabbing a woman, and then attacked the ambulance ferrying him to hospital.
New orders punishing rumor-mongers and forbidding citizens from beating up suspects imply that the city government is trying to dampen the firestorm it started.
Most of the stabbings appear to be simple hysteria. Only 106 victims had shown signs of jabs, bumps or rashes as of Sept 4.
Some were pricked by sewing needles or pins, not syringes, doctors said. Other marks might be insect bites.
Authorities have revealed details of four crimes that appear to have prompted the syringe warning.
On August 28, a 19-year-old Uighur followed a fruit seller home and stuck a pin in her buttocks. The next day, two Uighur drug addicts, a man and woman aged 22 and 34, used a syringe to mug a cabbie, stealing 710 yuan ($100).
On August 31, a Uighur addict used a syringe with heroin in it to fend off arresting officers, some of whom were injured.
On Sept 3, four men jabbed a woman in the neck with a syringe loaded with an unidentified dangerous substance.
Authorities have not explained how the crimes by junkies and molesters comprise an organized plot.
It is possible that those who were actually pricked, many on crowded buses, were targets of people seeking revenge or trying to stir up hatred, or just bored people looking for drama.
Editing by Nick Macfie