By Gillian Wong
The Associated Press
URUMQI, China (AP) — Police fatally shot two Uighur men and wounded a third in western China, where violence has continued to flare despite the massive numbers of troops sent to restore calm more than a week after deadly ethnic rioting. This the first time the Chinese government has acknowledged that its security forces opened fire since communal violence hit Urumqi, the capital of the restive Xinjiang region, on July 5. At least 184 people have been killed and another 1,680 wounded.
The mid-afternoon shooting sent frightened residents scurrying into homes and shops for cover. The incident underscored how far authorities are from imposing order between the Muslim Uighurs and the Han Chinese, the majority ethnic group.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said the United States had officials in the region but was still gathering information about what was happening. He said U.S. officials have expressed concern to Chinese officials.
“We are urging China to handle the situation as they go forward in a transparent manner,” Kelly said. “As they work to restore order, we believe that it’s important that they respect the legal rights of all Chinese citizens.”
He called on China to respect the rights of Uighurs to practice their religion and to not place restrictions on their religious activity.
An official with the Urumqi city government, who gave his surname as Fan, said police on patrol had seen three Uighur men attacking a fourth Uighur with long knives and batons. When they tried to break up the fight, the three turned against the officers, he said.
“The police fired into the air for warning, but it was not effective,” Fan said. “Therefore, the police shot them, according to law.”
Two of them died at the scene while the wounded man was taken to the nearby People’s Hospital where his condition was unknown.
The gunfire rang out near one of the city’s main Uighur neighborhoods, shattering the relative calm of the afternoon. Witness accounts corroborated some of the police report but also differed in details.
An Associated Press reporter at the scene saw police in bulletproof vests wielding pistols, shotguns, and batons chasing down a man who appeared to be a Uighur. They surrounded him and began kicking him and beating him with batons. Gunfire was heard before and during the brief incident, though it was unclear if the man had been shot.
A Uighur man, who was visiting his mother in the neighborhood, said that he heard the gunfire but did not see the incident. Still, he said he had no doubt that there will be more violence.
“It makes me very sad to see this happen. This is obviously not something that will end in just one, two, or three days,” he said, not wanting to give his name for fear of government retaliation. “There are no human rights in China. They catch Uighurs and beat them and take them away and nobody knows.”
China’s leaders have sought to play down tensions between ethnic groups, dispatching Politburo member Zhou Yongkang to spread the message that stability in Xinjiang was the “most important and pressing task that has overwhelming priority,” the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
The Uighurs have complained about an influx of Han Chinese and government putting restrictions on their Muslim religion. They accuse the Han of discrimination and the Communist Party of trying to erase their language and culture.
Han Chinese, many of whom were encouraged to emigrate here by the government, believe the Uighurs should be grateful for Xinjiang’s rapid economic development, which has brought new schools, highways, airports, railways, natural gas fields, and oil wells to the sprawling, rugged region.
On Monday, helmeted riot police remained in the central square while small groups of paramilitary police stood guard on street corners. Military helicopters flew overhead.
The July 5 violence had begun when Uighurs, who were protesting last month’s deaths of fellow factory workers in a brawl in southern China, clashed with police. Crowds scattered throughout the city, attacking ethnic Han Chinese and burning cars.
Of the 184 killed on July 5, the government has said 137 were Han Chinese and 46 were Uighurs, along with one minority Hui Muslim. Uighurs say they believe many more from their ethnic group died in the government crackdown.
Although much remains unknown about how police reimposed order last week, some security forces have seemingly acted with great discipline. For example, paramilitary police nearly came to blows with Uighur women protesting the arrests of family members last week, but they pulled back at the last moment.
Among the mixture of troops on the streets are paramilitary police with shields and batons, and anti-riot forces and SWAT teams with guns.
There are complaints among Han Chinese that the police were slow to protect them. Uighurs say police fired on people during the riot. ♦