BEIJING // Renewed riots erupted in China's western Xinjiang region yesterday as thousands of Han Chinese armed with knives, sticks and glass bottles faced off against riot police, seeking revenge for the ethnic violence that left more than 150 dead on Sunday. Police were reported to have fired tear gas into crowds to disperse thousands of Han Chinese marching through the capital and hunting ethnic Uighurs who they hold responsible for the death of 156 people in Urumchi on Sunday.
Earlier in the day a group of 200 Uighurs clashed with heavily armed riot police in protest against the arrests of more than 1,000 ethnic Muslims. Authorities claim that the Han Chinese, China's dominant ethnic group but a minority in the region, have been the main victims of the violence while ethnic Uighur groups said their Islamic ethnic population represents 90 per cent of the death toll. They have spoken out about unjustified arrests.
"They attacked us. Now it's our turn to attack them," one man in a crowd told Reuters. "My husband was taken away yesterday by police. They didn't say why. They just took him away," a woman who called herself Maliya said. State media have been sympathetic towards Han rioters who say they are protecting themselves from violence. The government confirmed that the internet was disconnected in the region to stop the flow of information, but powerful images of Han victims have been broadcast on state television. Uighur demonstrators say they were protesting against the death of fellow Uighurs killed in the south of China last month.
Large gangs of Han rioters sang the Chinese national anthem while clashing with police and smashing property mostly owned by Muslims, Reuters reported. Others chanted: "Unity is strength, and defend stability, protect the people," slogans prominent in China's fight for independence during the Japanese occupation. Chinese leaders have deployed thousands of heavily armed police to restore authority in China's most western region, but they have struggled to maintain order as mobs from rival ethnic groups sparked new waves of clashes, which are now spreading outside of the regional capital city.
The death toll has risen to 156 dead while more than 1,000 people have been reported injured. Police have arrested 1,434 since mobs rampaged through the streets overturning police cars and setting buildings ablaze. Xinhua, the official state-run news agency, said authorities would impose a curfew on the city overnight. Discrepancy over the identity of victims of the riots is spreading resentment between ethnic groups. State-run media reported that groups of Uighurs had targeted Han Chinese, beating many to death last weekend. State media have broadcast interviews of hospitalised Han.
Xinjiang newspapers published photographs of the bodies of Han Chinese killed in the riots. One paper printed a photograph of a woman's slashed throat. The publication of such images is thought to have propelled yesterday's Han-led protests. The foreign ministry denounced Sunday's violence in a press conference yesterday, calling the riots "an evil killing, fire setting and looting", and blasted the Uighur group's claim that the weekend's riots began as peaceful protests.
"Anybody calling the violence a peaceful protest is trying to turn black into white in an attempt to mislead the public," Qin Gang, a spokesman for the foreign ministry, told a regular press conference. Human rights groups have called for independent investigations into the causes of death. Amnesty International said the violence underpins long-running tensions created by the failure of central governmental policy in the region.
"What we are not getting is the details of who are responsible for the deaths," an Amnesty International spokesman said. "We are going to watch very closely. All of those people have rights in terms of access to lawyers. It all needs to be open," the spokesman said in an interview. Foreign journalists have been detained trying to cover the riots, and internet and telephone networks appear to be down in the region.
"There is no connection, not even a recorded 'can't connect' message," said a man in Beijing who was trying to reach a friend in Xinjiang. "The Han Chinese are the ones who are the victims not the ones who started the riots," said Lu Yue, 25-year-old Han Chinese who returned to Beijing from Xinjiang two weeks before the riots started. "Who cannot be afraid at this time? More than 100 people died. But my friends are fine because my friends have secured their house. I am so lucky that I left there in time," he said.
The riots are reminiscent of the violent demonstrations in Tibet in March last year. Both regions are politically sensitive. Increased prosperity in Xinjiang has brought an influx of Han, who outnumber Uighurs in many cities in Xinjiang thus breeding resentment over Han dominance over the local economy. Chinese authorities say they have arrested the "ringleaders" of the riots and have blamed international separatist groups for instigating the unrest.