Hundreds of angry Han Chinese faced off with police Friday in the restive city of Urumqi, one day after mass protests over mysterious syringe attacks that have revived ethnic tensions.
The fresh demonstration came as thousands of security forces locked down the capital of northwestern Xinjiang region, where violence erupted in July between mainly Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese, leaving nearly 200 dead.
About 1,000 protesters threw plastic bottles at a similar number of police near People’s Square, where the main demonstrations took place Thursday. The crowd dispersed an hour later as hundreds more police swarmed the area.
Some Han Chinese residents have blamed the Uighurs for the hundreds of reported syringe attacks in the city, but official reports have been vague about the identities of the perpetrators, 21 of whom have been detained.
“People are getting stabbed just walking down the streets by other passers-by. They are Uighurs who are doing the stabbings,” said a 52-year-old Han woman surnamed Liu, who lives near Urumqi’s Uighur district.
State media, quoting police, said a total of 476 people had sought treatment in hospital after being attacked with syringes in Urumqi since mid-August. But the report noted that only 89 of them had “obvious signs of needle sites.”
No one had been infected or poisoned in the assaults, Xinhua news agency reported, and it remained unclear what the syringes contained, if anything.
The needle attacks continued on Friday, with two victims stabbed in the early morning telling their stories to an AFP reporter at a local police station.
“He was really tall, he was a Uighur for sure. But before I could get a good look at him, he ran off,” Liu Yan, a 21-year-old Han woman said with a pained look on her face, showing a pinprick wound on her hand.
On Thursday and again on Friday, protesters called for the resignation of regional Communist party boss Wang Lequan, who has called for calm and urged the city’s 1.8 million residents to show restraint.
Across Urumqi, armed police in riot gear were stationed at key points and blocked roads leading to People’s Square. Barricades were erected on key thoroughfares and traffic was cut off in several areas.
Government notices were posted banning all large gatherings, the use of any weapons, and incitement to violence. A few cars with smashed windshields were still in the streets.
Some shops and banks were open early Friday, and people slowly came back into the streets to head to work, but at least two key mosques were closed for morning prayers as Muslims observed Ramadan.
“We are not open today. We were ordered to keep the mosque closed,” said an official at the Hantenggeli mosque in the city’s central Nanmen area. “It is for everyone’s safety.”
A group of middle-aged Uighur men, watching the deployment of the armed police, all told AFP they were unconvinced that Uighurs were to blame for the attacks.
“That is what the government and the newspapers are saying, but we are not clear. None of us has seen it,” said one of them, who identified himself only as Mehmet.
Uighurs say the July 5 riots occurred after Urumqi police tried to forcibly break up a peaceful protest over a brawl involving factory workers in distant southern China that state media said left two Uighurs dead.
Uighurs have long complained of repression by China.
China however has accused exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer, who lives in the United States, of orchestrating the unrest.
Wang Jinren, who watched Friday’s protest from his jade store, said authorities needed to do more to ensure public safety in Urumqi and restore calm.
“The government is really lame. Everybody can see that now. It’s been two months and they still have not dealt with this properly. How can that be?” he said.
“But these problems are so big, maybe no one can solve them.”