China sacked two top officials in restive Xinjiang on Saturday as it moved to quell public uproar over syringe attacks in the region’s capital Urumqi that sparked deadly protests.
State-run Xinhua news agency said Urumqi’s Communist Party chief Li Zhi was removed along with Xinjiang’s top police official Liu Yao Hua in the wake of mass protests by mostly ethnic Han that left five people dead.
The demonstrations began on Wednesday with angry citizens demanding the government stop a spate of mysterious syringe attacks, just two months after riots by the city’s Muslim Uighurs left nearly 200 people dead, mostly Han.
Security remained tight Saturday as signs of normality slowly returned to the city of 1.8 million after three days of demonstrations that peaked on Thursday when tens of thousands of people poured onto the streets.
Five people died in the protests on Thursday, officials said, as anger over hundreds of needle attacks since mid-August boiled over, with many of the victims blaming Uighurs.
One needle used in an attack had heroin in it, an official said Saturday, but authorities have been trying to play down the likelihood of victims contracting diseases or serious illness.
National public security minister Meng Jianzhu, who rushed to Urumqi Friday to oversee a huge security deployment, has said the syringe attacks were “instigated by ethnic separatist forces”.
Xinhua’s report Saturday did not give a reason for the removal of the two top-level officials but many protesters had demanded heads roll over the government’s failure to maintain public safety.
Xinhua said Li was replaced by Zhu Hailun, a top Xinjiang party official, while police chief Liu was replaced by Zhu Changjie, party head of Xinjiang’s Aksu prefecture.
Back on the streets Saturday, traffic restrictions were eased and cars, taxis and regular buses were on the roads, an AFP reporter witnessed. More shops were open than on Friday and more people were out and about.
At the Hantenggeli mosque in the city centre, which was closed Friday, an official in the management office who asked not to be named said: “We are open today. Everything is back to normal. There are people inside praying now.”
Thousands of security forces personnel however remained in place, with about 600 troops manning just one intersection on a road leading into Urumqi’s Uighur district. A helicopter circled overhead.
At Nanhu Square, where police used tear gas to disperse protesters Friday, hundreds of People’s Armed Police carrying automatic weapons with bayonets attached created a security ring around the regional government headquarters.
City authorities stepped up security checks at large shopping malls and markets, warning the venues could be shut down if they failed to comply, according to the Morning News, a local newspaper.
Beijing has long contended it faces a major Islamic separatist threat originating in the mainly Muslim region, linking Uighur dissidents to Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda network.
China has said “separatists” also orchestrated the deadly July unrest, but has been stressing that both Han and Uighurs have been victims of the needle stabbings.
Minority Uighurs say the violence two months ago was sparked when Chinese security forces reacted harshly to peaceful protests over an earlier factory brawl in southern China that state media said left two Uighurs dead.
Official media, quoting police, said a total of 531 people had sought treatment in hospital after being stabbed with syringes in Urumqi in the last few weeks.
So far, there have been no cases of infection or poisoning, a panel of People’s Liberation Army medical specialists told reporters in Urumqi on Saturday.
However, Urumqi city prosecutor Udgar Abdulrahman told reporters that in one case, a 47-year-old Uighur man assaulted police with a syringe containing heroin.
He said four people had been charged with endangering public safety over the attacks -- all four were Uighurs, Xinhua said, quoting a legal official -- and 25 in total captured.
The manager of one Urumqi pharmacy, who identified herself only by her surname Huang, said tight restrictions had been imposed on the sale of needles, now only available at hospitals.
“How can we continue to sell needles? Society is so chaotic and there are so many bad people around,” she said.