The Chinese president cut short a G-8 summit trip to rush home Wednesday after ethnic tensions soared in the Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region and security forces flooded the area after a violent riots left 156 dead.
The city's Communist Party boss promised that those behind the killings would be executed, as exiled Uighur leader, Rebiya Kadeer, blamed Chinese policy for the violent unrest and claimed the death toll from riots is "much higher" than the 156 stated by Beijing.
Despite a massive show of force by Chinese troops that brought some calm along with the threat of execution, mobs wielding makeshift weapons roamed the capital of the region, Urumqi, with vigilantes attacking Uighurs. The Uighurs are Turkic Muslims and make up nearly half of Xinjiang’s 20 million population.
Helicopters dropped leaflets appealing for calm among the capital's 2.3 million residents a day after running battles in the streets between Han Chinese and minority Muslim Uighurs armed with bricks, steel pipes and machetes.
The G-8 summit in the Italian city of L'Aquila, which was devastated by an earthquake less than 100 days ago, was overshadowed at the last minute by the turmoil in China and President Hu Jintao return to Beijing. A Foreign Ministry statement said that "given the current situation in Xinjiang," President Hu Jintao cut short a trip to Italy for a G-8 meeting later Wednesday to return home. It was not known if he would travel to Urumqi, about four hours by air west of Beijing, reported the Associated Press, citing officials.
After an overnight curfew, Urumqi streets were calmer Wednesday, but residents showed mobile phone and video camera footage of the earlier chaos, reporting neighbor-on-neighbor violence and pointing out bloodstains. Some formed alleyway barricades with furniture and debris.
"The government told us today not to get involved in any kind of violence. They've been broadcasting this on the radio and they even drove through neighborhoods with speakers telling people not to carry weapons," said one Han Chinese man who would give only his surname, Wang.
Hundreds of paramilitary police guarded the main roads to Uighur neighborhoods and the city's central square, where the first riots began. Most were armed with shields and clubs, while a few had assault rifles fixed with bayonets. Even before Tuesday's violence, the government said more than 1,000 had been detained. The notes dropped by helicopter carried an appeal for calm from Xinjiang's Communist Party secretary.
"Secretary Wang urges everybody to return home, return to their work units and return to their communities," read the title in bold Chinese characters. Later on Wednesday, Communist Party chief, Li Zhi, told a televised news conference that many people had been arrested, including students. "To those who committed crimes with cruel means, we will execute them," he said, adding government forces would crack down on any security risk. He did not give details, but said both groups were responsible for the violence.
Situation ’under control’
The security build-up had an impact; fewer people were wielding makeshift weapons and taking to the streets, and Urumqi mayor Jerla Isamudin told reporters in the late afternoon that the situation in the city was "under control." He also warned that anyone found guilty of murder in connection to the unrest would be given the death penalty. But tensions remained high, with some Han Chinese and Uighurs continuing to arm themselves with sticks, poles, knives and other weapons, leading to confrontations and violence, according to Agence France-Presse reporters.
In a BBC interview on Wednesday, exiled Uighur leader Rebiya blamed Chinese policies for the violent unrest and claimed the death toll from riots was "much higher" than the 156 stated by Beijing. The president of the World Uighur Congress also denied official Chinese allegations that she is to blame for instigating the violence and said it appeared more Uighurs had died than Han Chinese.