, URUMQI, Jul 8 – China poured troops into the restive city of Urumqi on Wednesday in a massive show of force, but fresh unrest flared as Han Chinese and Muslim Uighurs armed themselves with makeshift weapons.
As one of the worst spikes in ethnic tensions to have hit China in decades showed no signs of easing, President Hu Jintao abandoned a Group of Eight summit in Italy to deal with the crisis.
In Urumqi, the capital of the remote northwest Xinjiang region where 156 people died in riots on Sunday, army helicopters circled overhead as thousands of soldiers and riot police filled the city shouting out "protect the people".
"We support this. The government has to take action to protect the people," said a Han Chinese man surnamed Run, 45, as he watched the troops roll by in trucks.
"But they should have got here sooner. It took them three days to do this. Why so long?"
After authorities blamed Muslim Uighurs for Sunday’s unrest that also left more than 1,000 people injured, Han Chinese took to the streets Tuesday with shovels, meat cleavers and other makeshift weapons vowing to defend themselves.
The city descended into chaos as mobs, sometimes made up of thousands of Han, surged towards Uighur neighbourhoods, only to be pushed back by security forces, who fired volleys of tear gas.
After a night-time curfew was declared on Tuesday, Chinese authorities appeared determined to show they were able to maintain order, with some troops carrying rifles with bayonets affixed.
Thousands of riot police wearing helmets and carrying shields lined up on a main road in Urumqi dividing the city centre from a Uighur district, with columns of soldiers behind them.
Military trucks rolled by with loudspeakers blaring: "Everybody please cooperate, please go home."
But while the mobs had not returned and there was no more bloodshed, many Han Chinese and some Uighurs were still carrying makeshift weapons in the city centre and outlying districts, AFP reporters witnessed Wednesday.
In one incident, about 200 Uighurs armed with sticks, pipes and rocks began protesting directly in front of a police cordon that was dividing their neighbourhood from a Han-populated area, one AFP reporter said.
A smaller group of Uighurs had been trading insults and accusations with Han who were on the other side of the cordon and similarly armed with makeshift weapons.
The crowd of Uighurs grew after a helicopter dropped leaflets blaming Sunday’s unrest on exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer, but they also claimed police had overnight allowed Han Chinese to freely attack Muslim areas.
"Last night about 300 Han came through the security over there (pointing to the police cordon) and they attacked people’s homes and smashed up a restaurant," Akbar, 20, told AFP.
It was not immediately possible to verify the accusations.
During Wednesday’s stand-off the Uighurs yelled at police but there were no immediate violent clashes. Police moved foreign reporters away from the scene after about 15 minutes, stopping them from being able to witness events.
Earlier in the day and in the mainly Han-populated part of town, one woman in her 30s was seen walking on the street carrying a large stick with nails coming out of it, while others were carrying knives and steel poles.
Many shops and businesses remained closed and there were no buses or taxis running through the centre of town.
Highlighting the severity of the crisis, the government announced Hu had cut short a trip to Italy for the G8 summit.
"In light of the current situation in Xinjiang, President Hu Jintao returned to China early this morning," the foreign ministry said.
International alarm over the crisis intensified, with Muslim countries, the United Nations and the European Union expressing concern.
Xinjiang’s eight million Uighurs make up nearly half the population of the region, a vast area of deserts and mountains rich in natural resources that borders Central Asia.
The Turkic-speaking people have long complained of repression and discrimination under Chinese rule, but Beijing insists it has brought economic prosperity to the region.