BEIJING (Reuters) - Three people died in rioting in China’s restive far west Xinjiang region on Sunday, state media reported, in a confrontation that underscored the tense divide there between Han Chinese and the Uighur ethnic minority.
The official Xinhua news agency said rioters “illegally gathered in several downtown places and engaged in beating, smashing, looting and burning” in the regional capital Urumqi.
The dead were “three ordinary people of the Han ethnic group,” Xinhua said. It did not say how they died.
Nor did the official reports specify the ethnicity of those involved in the unrest or the reasons behind it, and calls to the Xinjiang government spokesperson’s office and Urumqi police were not answered.
But other sources told Reuters the clash involved members of the Uighur ethnic minority, many of whom resent the Chinese presence in the region, and the cultural and religious controls imposed by China’s ruling Communist Party.
Dilxat Raxit, an advocate of Uighur independence exiled in Sweden, said the unrest was sparked by anger over a confrontation between Han Chinese and Uighur factory workers in far southern China in late June, when two Uighurs died.
“It began as a peaceful assembly. There were thousands of people shouting to stop ethnic discrimination, demanding an explanation. This anger has been growing for a long time,” he said of the gathering in Urumqi.
Many Uighurs complain they are marginalised economically and politically in their own land, which has rich mineral and natural gas reserves.
An eyewitness in Urumqi, who requested anonymity, told Reuters the police moved in and the confrontation turned violent.
Rioters overturned traffic rails and smashed buses until thousands of police and anti-riot troops swept through the city, using tear-gas and high-pressure water hoses to disperse crowds.
“Now the whole city is on lock-down,” he said.
Alim Seytoff, General Secretary of the Uyghur American Association, based in Washington D.C., said the peaceful protest was led by students angry over the recent factory deaths, and it showed that government efforts to quell Uighur aspirations were failing.
“Urumqi is a tightly controlled city, but the students have access to all sorts of information on the Internet,” he said.
“Now, I hear, the authorities have been going through university dorms to hunt down participants. ... There will be a harsh crackdown, but the basic problems won’t disappear.”
The Chinese video website Youku (www.youku.com) ran footage titled “Urumqi riot” that showed smoke rising from an expressway as a firetruck stopped at the scene.
An overseas Chinese news website, Boxun (peacehall.com), showed pictures it said were of the Urumqi riot, including hundreds of civilians pressed against a row of police, burning wreckage on a city street, and anti-riot police in shields and helmets.
Almost half of Xinjiang’s 20 million people are Uighurs. Many of them resent controls imposed by Beijing and an inflow of Han Chinese migrants. The population of Urumqi is mostly Han Chinese, and the city is under tight police security even in normal times.
Xinjiang has been under increasingly tight security in recent years, especially in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, when the region was hit by several deadly attacks that authorities said were the work of militants.
But human rights groups and Uighur independence activists say Beijing grossly exaggerates the threat from militants to justify harsh controls restricting peaceful political demands.
Reporting by Chris Buckley; editing by Myra MacDonald