, URUMQI, China, Jul 10 – Thousands of fearful people poured into bus and train stations to escape China’s Urumqi city after deadly ethnic unrest, as several mosques were ordered shut for the main Muslim day of prayer.
Authorities said they had put on extra bus services out of the capital of China’s remote Xinjiang region, but demand far outstripped seats and scalpers told AFP they were charging up to five times the normal face price for tickets.
"It is just too risky to stay here. We are scared of the violence," said Xu Qiugen, 23, a construction worker from central China who had been living in Urumqi for five years and was trying to buy a bus ticket out with his wife.
The exodus follows unrest that began Sunday when Muslim Uighurs, who have long complained about repression under Chinese rule, took to the streets in their thousands to protest, and security forces moved in to clamp down.
The Chinese government said 156 people were killed and more than 1,000 others injured, as Uighurs attacked people from China’s dominant Han ethnic group.
But Uighur exiles said security forces over-reacted to peaceful protests and used deadly force. They said up to 800 people may have died in the unrest, including the security crackdown.
The tensions continued early in the week as thousands of Han Chinese took to the streets wielding knives, poles, meat cleavers and other makeshift weapons vowing vengeance against the Uighurs.
AFP witnessed Han Chinese mobs assaulting two Uighurs in separate attacks, and Uighurs alleged many other beatings took place, but the extent of the violence throughout the week was unclear.
With ethnic tensions still at flashpoint and security forces saturating the city, many mosques were ordered shut for weekly prayers.
"The government said there would be no Friday prayers," said a Uighur man named Tursun outside the Hantagri mosque, one of the oldest in the capital, as about 100 policemen carrying machine guns and batons stood guard nearby.
"There’s nothing we can do… the government is afraid that people will use religion to support the three forces."
He was referring to a Chinese government term referring to extremism, separatism and terrorism — forces it says are seeking to split Xinjiang from the rest of the country.
Xinjiang makes up one-sixth of China’s territory and it crosses into Central Asia, sharing borders with eight countries including Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Eight million Uighurs make up just under half of Xinjiang’s population. They are a Turkic-speaking people who share more links with their Central Asian neighbours than the Han Chinese.
At the Bayi bus station, around 10,000 people were leaving the city, double the normal number, according to a top official there who gave his name as Adili.
He said the numbers were inflated because students were also leaving for the summer holidays, but that others were fleeing because of the unrest.
Queues at the bus station had as many as 300 people in them on Friday morning, an AFP reporter at the scene witnessed. Big crowds of passengers were hanging around both the bus and the nearby train station with their baggage.
Qi Fenglong, a Han Chinese, said he had travelled more than 240 kilometres to Urumqi to pick up his girlfriend.
"We thought it was better to bring her back home," he said just before boarding a bus, holding his girlfriend’s hand.
Scalpers moved fast to take advantage of the extra demand.
One scalper, who only gave his surname as Wang, was selling train tickets for Kashgar city, about 1,000 kilometres away, for 500 yuan (73 dollars), well above the face price of about 100 yuan.
"A lot of people are leaving because they are afraid. It’s really hard to buy tickets," Wang told AFP.