Police fired tear gas to try to restore order today as hundreds of Han Chinese armed with clubs marched through the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi, smashing shops and knocking over food stalls run by Muslims.
The city, where rioting and ethnic clashes killed 156 people two days ago, was extremely tense, with security officials breaking up a separate protest near the railway station.
Muslim women in traditional headscarves also faced off with armed Chinese police, wailing for the release of their sons and husbands detained after the riots.
Police used loudspeakers to appeal to the Han Chinese crowd to stop, but a group of about 300 protesters were joined by two other columns of marchers on Jiefang Nan Road. They appeared to be heading for the Grand Bazaar, the predominantly Muslim area of the city, but were blocked by police.
The crowd, which took up several blocks of the five-lane road, chanted “Unite” and “Modern Society”, and waved wooden sticks, lead pipes, shovels and hoes in the air.
As they headed down a back street toward a mosque, several loud explosions rang out followed by rising white puffs of smoke – and then the smell of tear gas.
The Han Chinese march follows a protest by about 200 people, mostly women from the Uighur minority group, who protested against the security crackdown which has led to more than 1,000 arrests in Urumqi following Sunday’s riot, the area’s worst ethnic violence in decades.
The women said police came through their neighbourhood last night and strip-searched men to check for cuts and other signs of fighting before hauling them away.
“My husband was detained at gunpoint. They were hitting people, they were stripping people naked. My husband was scared so he locked the door, but the police broke down the door and took him away,” said a woman, who gave her name as Aynir.
She said about 300 people were arrested in the market in the southern section of town.
The protesters briefly scuffled with paramilitary police, who pushed them back with long sticks before both sides retreated. The 90-minute protest played out in front of foreign reporters on a government-guided tour.
Outside the city’s southern railway station around midday, groups of 10 or so Uighur men with bricks and knives attacked Han Chinese passers-by and shop owners until police ran them off, witnesses said.
“They were using everything for weapons, like bricks, sticks and cleavers,” said a Mr Ma, an employee at a nearby fast food restaurant.
“Whenever the rioters saw someone on the street, they would ask ’Are you a Uighur?’ If they kept silent or couldn’t answer in the Uighur language, they would get beaten or killed.”
It was not immediately clear if anyone was killed in those reported attacks.
The violence and protests expose the tensions between the minority Uighur people, largely Muslim, and the ethnic Han Chinese in Xinjiang – a strategically vital region which shares borders with Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other Central Asian countries. The region has been one of China’s fastest growing, buoyed by oil and gas industries, attracting Chinese migrants.
Yet many Uighurs resent the influx and say they are not benefiting from the growth, and they say their religious freedoms have been restricted as well.
Without the foreign reporters present, today’s protests might not have become known. The government is restricting mobile phone services, has blocked Twitter, whose servers are overseas, and is heavily censoring Chinese social networking and news sites, as it blames Uighur exiles for fanning resentments against Chinese rule.
Urumqi Communist Party secretary Li Zhi told a news conference that more than 1,000 people had been detained as of early today and suggested more arrests were under way.
“The number is changing all the time,” Mr Li said. “We will let those who did not commit serious crimes go back to their work units. But to those criminal suspects trying to flee, we will never let them off.”
The official Xinhua News Agency said earlier today that 1,434 suspects had been arrested, and checkpoints had been set up to stop rioters from escaping.
Officials at the news conference said they could not give a breakdown of how many of the dead were Uighurs and how many were Han Chinese. State television has shown predominantly Han Chinese victims, while overseas Uighur groups say the death toll is much higher for Uighurs.