A prolonged clash on Sunday evening between hundreds of civilians brandishing bricks, rocks and knives against armed police in China’s remote northwest region of Xinjiang, left 140 dead and over 800 injured.
This was the worst ethnic riot in China since Tibetan protests against Chinese rule spread on the streets of Lhasa last March. The official death toll of 140 also makes it the deadliest demonstration to have erupted anywhere in China since years.
Hundreds were arrested after the bloodbath on the streets of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, where rioters also torched 261 vehicles and ransacked property. Officials blamed exiled ethnic Uighur separatists for instigating the riot through Internet.
After Tibet, oil-rich Xinjiang which also borders parts of India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, is China’s most politically sensitive expanse of territory. The region witnessed a series of separatist attacks before the Beijing Olympics last year.
Xinjiang is the homeland of about eight million ethnic Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority, a section of whom complain that the government stifles their cultural traditions. Xinjiang simmers with an uneasy calm between the Uighurs and a dominating influx of Han Chinese.
The Sunday rampage initially began as a gathering of locals in the city-centre of Urumqi to demand an inquiry into an ethnic clash at a toy factory in south China in June, which had left two Uighurs dead.
Media reports were not clear how the Sunday demonstration turned into a riot. Initial government reports on Sunday had estimated the death toll at three. It was revised to 140 only by Monday afternoon.
The regional government said the riot was instigated by exiled separatists of the World Uighur Congress led by an Uighur businesswoman Rebiya Kadeer in the US. “It was a crime of violence that was premeditated and organised,” Nur Bekri, chairman of the Xinjiang regional government, said in a televised speech on Monday.
“It began as a peaceful assembly. There were thousands of people shouting to stop ethnic discrimination, demanding an explanation,” Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the World Uighur Congress, told Reuters from exile in Sweden. “They are tired of suffering in silence.”
Last year in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, Xinjiang saw a marked increase in attacks on police and government sites.
The rage in Urumqi has flared at a time when Beijing wants to project an image of domestic stability ahead of October 1, when grand celebrations will mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.