Five people have died during mass protests sparked by a bizarre series of hypodermic needle stabbings in this western Chinese city that has been wracked by ethnic unrest, an official said on Friday.
Deputy Mayor Zhang Hong said the deaths came on Thursday, during demonstrations by members of China's majority Han ethnic group who are also demanding punishment of Muslim Uighurs accused in July rioting that claimed nearly 200 lives.
Protesters took to the streets again on Friday. Police used tear gas and public appeals to break up Han crowds who tried repeatedly to break through to government offices.
Lingering tensions from the rioting have fed fears over the more than 500 reported syringe stabbings, which like the earlier violence have targeted mostly Han.
Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu said the same Muslim ethnic separatists Beijing has blamed for the rioting that started July 5 orchestrated the needle attacks.
"The needle stabbing incident is a continuation of the '7-5' incident, and it's plotted by unlawful elements and instigated by ethnic separatist forces," Meng said in comments broadcast on national television. "Their purpose is to damage ethnic unity." His comments were the first time authorities suggested Uighur militants were involved in the stabbings.
Meng gave no evidence, and the government has not backed up its accusations about the earlier violence. By most accounts, the July riot started after police confronted Uighur protesters, who then attacked Han. Days later, Han vigilantes tore through Uighur neighborhoods to retaliate.
Zhang said 21 people had been detained on suspicion of carrying out the needle attacks, and four people have been indicted. He said all were Uighurs.
The Xinjiang region and its capital, Urumqi, have for decades faced a simmering separatist movement by the largely Muslim Uighurs. Meng's arrival in Urumqi from Beijing was a measure of China's anxieties that order was slipping in the often tense city of 2.5 million and that violence between Hans and Uighurs could flare again.
Zhang said two of those killed on Thursday died in "small-scale clashes" and were "innocent," but he gave no details. He said authorities were investigating the other three deaths. Fourteen others were injured.
The police response to the unrest on Friday was more forceful than on Thursday, possibly as a result of the killings. Hundreds of young Han men protested outside the headquarters of Xinjiang party secretary Wang Lequan, an ally of President Hu Jintao, chanting for him to step down.
Armed police in riot gear pushed back demonstrators, some waving Chinese flags and singing the national anthem. Several rounds of tear gas were fired to disperse crowds.
One Han man argued with paramilitary police.
"It's been two months already. How many more months are we going to wait, how long before us Han can feel safe?" said the man, who would give only his surname, Ma.
A truck with loudspeakers circled behind him, with a recorded voice saying repeatedly: "Disperse. Don't stay here. Think of the nation."
Meng vowed the government would speed up the process of charging and prosecuting the more than 1,200 people detained in the July riot, in which 197 people were killed and about 1,700 injured. "We should quicken the pace of dealing with the detained suspects and dig up the plotters behind this, and severely punish the murderers," Meng said.
Heavily Uighur neighborhoods were sealed off by security forces. Local police authorities said hospitals in Urumqi are treating 531 people who believe they were attacked with hypodermic needles, 55 more than previously reported, the official Xinhua News Agency said. About 106 showed obvious signs of needle attacks, it said. So far, none showed any signs of infection or poisoning, state media has said. None of 160 or so people treated at the Urumqi Medical College Hospital showed symptoms of AIDS or hepatitis, said Lin Fangmu, director of the preventative medicine department. The most common symptom they displayed was "mainly just fear, terror," Lin said.
One middle-aged Han Chinese man said police should leave the protesters alone.
"They should be catching the terrorists, not harassing the people," said Ji Xiaolong. "I have to wonder if Hu Jintao really knows what is going on here."
Two Hong Kong broadcasters, TVB and now TV, said three of their reporters were detained for over three hours for filming a protest and released. Some of their seized cameras and tapes were returned. An Associated Press photographer and TV crew had their cameras confiscated and returned after five hours.