x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Uighurs pray for peace in Urumqi

There was an uneasy truce after soldiers eventually let Muslims into some places of worship but many still flee the capital.

URUMQI, CHINA // Riot police armed with submachine guns broke up a small protest by Uighurs demanding they be allowed into a mosque to pray yesterday, in the first sign of unrest in the mostly Muslim region since days of rioting left at least 184 dead and more than a thousand injured. Chinese authorities had initially ordered all mosques in the area to close yesterday, hoping to prevent Muslim Uighurs from gathering in large numbers, but the effort backfired as many people pushed their way inside.

Outside the White Mosque in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi, several hundred people gathered as police ringed the building, blocked roads leading to it and a helicopter hovered overhead. But eventually, they decided to open the mosque. One Uighur policeman standing guard told the Associated Press the decision was taken to prevent any further incidents. Another protest occurred at the Dong Koruk mosque, near where most of Sunday's violence happened, but authorities eventually allowed a few thousand Uighurs to pray there.

The protests were the Chinese government's first test of keeping a lid on the ethnic tension that on Sunday saw hundreds of Uighurs clash with security forces after protesting against the deaths of two of their compatriots in a factory brawl. They then scattered, attacking ethnic Han Chinese with whom they have a history of enmity. The government has since flooded the capital and other Muslim areas of Xinjiang with tens of thousands of troops and riot police, whose armoured vehicles could be heard rumbling through the quiet streets throughout the night.

"As a Muslim, I pray for peace," said Hadeer, a Uighur who did not want to talk about politics, and who like many people was heading to the airport yesterday. Buses, flights and trains were packed with people trying to get out, both Han and Uighurs, all of whom fear a resurgence in ethnic violence, the worst the country has seen in two decades. For many Uighurs, who speak a Turkish dialect, yesterday was their first day out since Tuesday, when between 200 to 2,000 Han Chinese, armed with clubs, machetes and electric batons went seeking revenge for Sunday's attacks. They smashed shops and businesses belonging to Uighurs, broke windows and killed at least four Uighurs, according to hospital sources and residents.

"I heard people died near Nanlangpuo street, but I do not know how many," said one Uighur man. "We were so scared we took refuge at home. They beat people. "We never had any conflicts between Han Chinese and Uighurs, all this is the fault of the Communist Party." "They [the Han Chinese] came on Tuesday at 8pm and destroyed everything," said a man standing outside his restaurant, holding his son by the hand. "People from different ethnic groups come to my restaurant: Uighur, Han, Hui."

Although the government has allowed foreign journalists to remain in the region, it has been difficult to get firm statistics on the casualties. Yesterday, the government said that of the 184 dead, 137 were Han, 46 were Uighur and one man was of Hui ethnicity. While the Uighurs recognise that some of their compatriots behaved wildly, they blame police, the army and the Communist Party for what happened. Very few Uigurs will publicly blame Han Chinese.

"All [the deaths] are the fault of the government," said one man, outside the Nianzigoh mosque. The Chinese government has accused overseas Uighur groups seeking independence from China of orchestrating the violence. Those groups say that thousands may have died over the past week. Whatever the number, one thing most people agree on is that the death toll is probably much higher than stated by the government.

"There are many more dead than what has been reported, talk to the Uighurs," said an American woman who lives in Urumqi but did not want to be named for fear of losing her visa. State media has said that more than 1,400 Uighurs have been arrested, all of whom face the death penalty if found guilty of murder during the riots. For thousands of years, Central Asian minorities such as the Uighurs, Caucasians and Chinese have lived in the oil-rich region, the size of Western Europe.

In 1949, when the Chinese Communist army occupied the area, Han Chinese accounted for just six per cent of the population, compared to more than 40 per cent of some 20 million people living there today. Ethnic tensions have been fostered by China's tight controls on religion and culture and an economic gap between many Uighurs and Han Chinese, who have flooded the region. China has adopted a similar policy in Tibet where 18 months ago 22 civilians allegedly died after a clampdown by security forces on Tibetans protesting against controls on their culture.

"These protests, like those in Tibet 18 months ago, reflect the profound failure of ethnic policies of Beijing," said Nicholas Bequelin, a Human Rights Watch China researcher. "The Uighurs, like Tibetans, have a history, culture, religion and language different than the rest of China." Anger has also been mounting in other Muslim countries, including in Turkey where the prime minister labelled the plight of the Uighurs "a kind of genocide" and about 5,000 people demonstrated outside the Fatih mosque in Istanbul.

* The National * With additional reporting by the Associated Press and Reuters