China poured troops into its restive Urumqi city on Wednesday in a massive show of force, as President Hu Jintao abandoned a G8 summit in Italy to deal with a deadly outbreak of ethnic unrest.
With raw tensions between China's dominant Han people and its Muslim Uighurs showing no signs of easing, many Han residents insisted on carrying their own makeshift weapons following the violence.
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.
There were thousands of riot police lined up wearing helmets and carrying shields on a main road in central Urumqi dividing the city from a southern Uighur district, with columns of soldiers behind them.
Trucks rolled by with people shouting into loudspeakers: "Everybody please cooperate, please go home."
But while the mobs had not returned, many Han Chinese were still carrying makeshift weapons on Wednesday morning in the city centre and outlying districts, AFP reporters witnessed.
"I'm carrying this just for my own feeling of safety," said a man named Li as he walked near the city centre carrying a martial arts nanchuk -- two batons held together by a chain.
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 worst ethnic unrest to hit China for decades, the government announced President Hu had cut short a trip to Italy for the Group of Eight leaders' summit.
"In light of the current situation in Xinjiang, President Hu Jintao returned to China early this morning," the foreign ministry said in a statement, adding he would be replaced at the summit by State Councillor Dai Bingguo.
International alarm over the crisis intensified, with Muslim countries, the United Nations and the European Union expressing concern.
"I urge Uighur and Han civic leaders and the Chinese authorities at all levels, to exercise great restraint so as not to spark further violence and loss of life," said the UN's top human rights official, Navi Pillay.
The Organisation of the Islamic Conference decried Tuesday "the disproportionate use of force" by China and called on Beijing to investigate "these serious incidents and bring the people responsible to justice swiftly".
Xinjiang's eight million Uighurs make up nearly half the population of Xinjiang, 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.