, URUMQI, Jul 6 – China said on Monday at least 140 people were killed in rioting by Muslim Uighurs in its restive Xinjiang region in the deadliest ethnic unrest reported in the country for decades.
The violence in the regional capital Urumqi on Sunday involved thousands of people, and the official Xinhua news agency said the death toll was likely to rise.
More than 800 other people were injured in the rampage, it added.
"Death toll in Xinjiang riot rises to 140, still climbing," Xinhua reported in its latest dispatch, after initially saying only three had died.
The news agency, citing local government officials, said "several hundred" people had already been arrested for involvement in the violence.
Dramatic footage broadcast by the state-run CCTV network showed men turning over a police car and smashing its windows, a woman being kicked as she lay on the ground, and buses and other vehicles aflame.
"All shop owners in the street are very scared," one Han Chinese bar owner told AFP, asking not to be named.
She estimated there were around 3,000 Uighur protesters, some of whom were armed with wooden batons and knives.
The Xinjiang regional government blamed Rebiya Kadeer, the Uighurs’ leader who is living in exile in the United States, for orchestrating the unrest.
"An initial investigation showed the violence was masterminded by the separatist World Uighur Congress led by Rebiya Kadeer," the government said in a statement, according to Xinhua.
However Uighur exiles, who have long chafed at Chinese rule in Xinjiang, accused Chinese security forces of over-reacting in quelling peaceful protests by thousands of people, and said police had fired indiscriminately.
Riot police and other security forces armed with machine guns and carrying shields were seen in Urumqi on Monday, preventing further protests, according to an AFP reporter here.
Truckloads of German Shepherd police dogs were also brought into Urumqi and large swathes of the Muslim quarter of the city were sealed off, the reporter said.
An American visitor in Urumqi told AFP he heard gunshots as the violence unfolded.
"I heard the gunshots and I could see the people’s armed police, white armoured vehicles, two busloads of soldiers and green army trucks covered in canvas moving in," said the man, who asked not to be identified.
The unrest echoed deadly violence in Buddhist Tibet in March last year when Ticapitalfmnewns stormed through the streets of the region’s capital, Lhasa, attacking Han Chinese in frustration at what they claimed was repressive Chinese rule.
Many of Xinjiang’s roughly eight million Uighurs similarly say they have suffered political, cultural and religious persecution.
As in Tibet, they also complain about Han Chinese moving into Xinjiang and dominating economic and political life.
Alim Seytoff, general secretary of the Uighur American Association, laid the blame for the violence on Chinese authorities.
Seytoff said Uighur students were seeking the arrest of suspects behind an ethnically charged brawl late last month at a factory in southern China that left two Uighurs dead.
"These young Uighurs peacefully took to the streets but more than 1,000 armed Chinese police came out," Seytoff told AFP in Washington.
"What we were told is that they began to shoot indiscriminately."
Xinjiang is a rugged region of vast deserts and mountains that borders central Asia, and the Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking people who have closer cultural links to their regional neighbours than the Han Chinese.
This year marks 60 years since communist Chinese troops entered Xinjiang and "peacefully liberated" the region. Advocates of independence for the area have maintained the move was an invasion.
A resident in Kashgar, Xinjiang’s famed Old Silk Road city that has also seen deadly ethnic tensions recently, told AFP by phone that extra police had been deployed on the streets there following the Urumqi violence.
"The security police and armed police started patrolling last night with guns," said the resident in central Kashgar, who declined to be named.