A protest in China's restive Muslim far west turned violent on Sunday, state media reported, and activists said police fired shots in the air and used batons to disperse a crowd that had swelled to nearly 1,000.
The late afternoon protest in the city of Urumqi was a rare mass demonstration in Xinjiang province, a region that has seen occasional separatist violence against Chinese rule.
More than 300 people, mostly members of the largely Muslim Uighur ethnic group, had gathered to demand an investigation into a brawl June 25 between Uighur and Han Chinese workers at a toy factory in southern China, said Gulinisa Maimaiti, a 32-year-old employee of a foreign company who took part in the protest.
Two reportedly died in last month's factory melee in southern Guangdong province, but Gulisina said protesters believed the real figure was higher.
At first, the 300 people held a silent, sit-down protest at the People's Square in Urumqi, Gulinisa said. "We are mourning our compatriots who were beaten to death in Guangdong," Gulinisa said in a phone interview.
Accounts of what happened differed, but the violence seemed to have started when the crowd, which Gulinisa said grew to 1,000 people, refused to disperse.
The government's Xinhua News Agency said the crowd attacked passers-by, torched vehicles and interrupted traffic on some roads. Xinhua said police were at the scene trying to maintain order, but the report did not provide details.
Gulinisa said police pinned protesters to the ground before taking some 40 protesters away.
"The police fired shots into the sky. They took people away in cars," he said.
Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the pro-independence World Uighur Congress based in Germany, said he received calls from Urumqi describing the protest as peaceful until police used force to try to clear the square.
"Riot police were using police batons to beat people," he said. One caller he spoke with said police opened fire. Dilxat said some protesters were beaten badly. One of his informants told him that one person was killed. The account could not immediately be corroborated.
Video shot from a building nearby and photos from mobile phones taken from the protest showed people running from police and a car on fire. In other shots, smoke rises in the distance and fire engines race to the protest.
The Urumqi police and city government refused or declined comment about the incident.
Tensions between Uighurs and Chinese are never far from the surface in Xinjiang, China's vast Central Asian buffer province. Uighur separatists have waged a sporadic campaign for independence in recent decades, and the military, armed police and riot squads maintain a visible presence in the region.
After a few years of relative calm, separatist violence picked up last year with attacks against border police and bombings of government buildings.