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Urumqi chief sacked following protest deaths

The Communist Party chief of the western city of Urumqi has been fired as the capital of China's frontier Xinjiang region crept back to an uneasy normality today.

Chinese security forces clear the crowds after a reported syringe stabbing incident near The People square in Urumqi.
Chinese security forces clear the crowds after a reported syringe stabbing incident near The People square in Urumqi.

URUMQI, China // The Communist Party chief of the western city of Urumqi has been fired after five people died in protests over a series of hypodermic needle attacks, the China's official Xinhua News Agency has reported. Xinhua did not give a reason for the Li Zhi's removal. But protesters have called for his resignation, amid anger at poor security in the city. The needle attacks, that authorities have blamed on Muslim separatists, have unnerved the city amid fears of a renewed outbreak of communal violence after ethnic rioting two months ago left nearly 200 people dead. The Xinjiang region crept back to an uneasy normality this morning while thousands of troops guarded against fresh protests after days of deadly violence that inflamed ethnic enmity. The far-west city was again under heavy security after three days of protests during which officials said five people died on Thursday. Shops, buses and roads began to come back to life, watched by police and anti-riot troops, many of them keeping Han Chinese residents from Uighur neighbourhoods.

Troops used tear gas yesterday to disperse angry crowds of mostly Han residents who called for the regional party secretary to resign after a spate of hundreds of claimed syringe attacks they blamed on Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim people who call this region their homeland. Claims of fresh attacks persisted on Saturday. Dozens of Han Chinese near the city centre complained that troops took away an Uighur they accused of stabbing a child.

The spasm of unrest has alarmed the central government less than a month before China marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic on October 1, and officials have cast the stabbings as a separatist plot by Uighurs. "Saboteurs may be planning more unnerving disruptions to create a sense of insecurity as the nation counts down to its major celebration of the 60th anniversary," said an editorial in the China Daily, the country's flagship English-language paper.

At least 197 people died in Urumqi when a protest by Uighurs on July 5 gave way to riots and killings that China called a separatist attack. Most of the dead were Han Chinese, and in the recent protests Han residents have voiced anger that Uighurs accused of rioting have yet to be tried. The minister for police, Meng Jianzhu, flew to Urumqi to oversee security. "The needle-stabbing attacks of recent days were a continuation of the July 5 incident," Meng said, according to the official People's Daily on Saturday. "Their goal is to wreck ethnic unity and create splits in the motherland."

But in Urumqi, ethnic harmony seemed a distant ideal, with the panic over the needle attacks entrenching mutual fear between Uighurs and Han Chinese. Xinjiang's population of 21 million is divided mainly between Uighurs, long the region's majority, and Han Chinese, many of whom moved there in recent decades, drawing Uighur complaints that Han get the best jobs. Most Urumqi residents are Han Chinese.

"Now, no matter whether you are Han Chinese or of an ethnic minority, you feel different from the past," said Wupuer, a 46-year-old Uighur resident. "There is a sense of insecurity." Uighur residents spoke of harassment by police and civilians. "Look at how the security forces are allowing the Chinese to protest. If a Uighur does anything at all, any Chinese citizen can call the police," said a Uighur man, Ali, adding that he had been detained for 48 hours in late July.

But security forces across Urumqi must now keep a close watch on Han Chinese residents, long seen as reliably loyal to the government. Xinjiang's Communist Party secretary, Wang Lequan, and his officials have long focused on fears of Uighur separatism and appeared caught off guard by the surge of Han Chinese unrest. Han residents have directed their ire at Mr Wang and other officials. Some seeking to enter Uighur neighbourhoods or march on government offices called security forces "traitors" for blocking their way.

While there were no more mass protests this morning, some Han Chinese residents said their desire for revenge over the July 5 killings had not waned. *Reuters and AP