URUMQI, China Violent street battles killed at least 140 people and injured 828 others in the deadliest ethnic unrest to hit China's western Xinjiang region in decades, and officials said Monday the death toll was expected to rise.
Police sealed off streets in parts of the provincial capital, Urumqi, after discord between ethnic Muslim Uighur people and China's Han majority erupted into riots. Witnesses reported a new protest Monday in a second city, Kashgar.
Columns of paramilitary police in green camouflage uniforms and flak vests marched Monday around Urumqi's main bazaar a largely Uighur neighborhood carrying batons, long bamboo poles and slingshots. Mobile phone service was blocked, and Internet links were also cut or slowed down.
Rioters on Sunday overturned barricades, attacking vehicles and houses, and clashed violently with police in Urumqi, according to media and witness accounts. State television aired footage showing protesters attacking and kicking people on the ground. Other people, who appeared to be Han Chinese, sat dazed with blood pouring down their faces.
There was little immediate explanation for how so many people died. The government accused a Uighur businesswoman living in the U.S. of inciting the riots through phone calls and "propaganda" spread on Web sites. Exile groups said the violence started only after police began violently cracking down on a peaceful protest complaining about a fight between Uighur and Han factory workers in another part of China.
The unrest is another troubling sign for Beijing at how rapid economic development has failed to stem and even has exacerbated resentment among ethnic minorities, who say they are being marginalized in their homelands as Chinese migrants pour in.
Thousands of people took part in Sunday's disturbance, unlike recent sporadic separatist violence carried out by small groups in Xinjiang. The clashes echoed the violent protest that rocked Tibet last year and left many Tibetan communities living under clamped-down security ever since.
Tensions between Uighurs and the majority Han Chinese are never far from the surface in Xinjiang, a sprawling region rich in minerals and oil that borders eight Central Asian nations. Many Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gers) yearn for independence and some militants have waged a sporadic, violent separatist campaign.
Uighurs make up the largest ethnic group in Xinjiang, but not in the capital of Urumqi, which has attracted large numbers of Han Chinese migrants. The city of 2.3 million is now about overwhelmingly Chinese a source of frustration for native Uighurs who say they are being squeezed out.
About 1,000 to 3,000 Uighur demonstrators had gathered Sunday in the regional capital for a protest that apparently spun out of control. Accounts differed over what happened, but the violence seemed to have started when the crowd of protesters refused to disperse.
The official Xinhua News Agency reported hundreds of people were arrested and checkpoints ringed the city to prevent rioters from escaping. Mobile phone service provided by at least one company was cut Monday to stop people from organizing further action in Xinjiang.
Internet access was blocked or unusually slow in Urumqi on Monday. Videos and text updates about the riots were removed from China-based social networking sites such as Youku, a YouTube-like video service, and Fanfou, a Chinese micro-blogging Web site similar to Twitter.
A Fanfou search for posts with the key word Urumqi turned up zero results while Twitter, which is hosted overseas, yielded hundreds of comments in Chinese and English. Major Chinese portals such as Sina.com, Sohu.com and 163.com relied solely on Xinhua for news of the event and turned off the comment function at the bottom of the stories so people could not publicly react.
The demonstrators Sunday were demanding justice for two Uighurs killed last month during a fight with Han Chinese co-workers at a factory in southern China.
Uighur activists and exiles say the millions of Han Chinese who have settled here in recent years are gradually squeezing the Turkic people out of their homeland.
But many Chinese believe the Uighurs are backward and ungrateful for the economic development the Chinese have brought to the poor region.
Wu Nong, director of the news office of the Xinjiang provincial government, said more than 260 vehicles were attacked or set on fire in Sunday's unrest and 203 shops were damaged. She said 140 people were killed and 828 injured in the violence.
She did not say how many of the victims were Han or Uighurs.
Xinhua said several hundred people had been arrested in connection with the riot and police were searching for about 90 other "key suspects." It also quoted a local police chief as saying the death toll was expected to rise.
Uighur exiles condemned the crackdown.
"We are extremely saddened by the heavy-handed use of force by the Chinese security forces against the peaceful demonstrators," said Alim Seytoff, vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based Uyghur American Association.
"We ask the international community to condemn China's killing of innocent Uighurs. This is a very dark day in the history of the Uighur people," he said.
The association, led by a former prominent Xinjiang businesswoman now living in America, Rebiya Kadeer, estimated that 1,000 to 3,000 people took part in the protest.
Xinjiang Governor Nur Bekri said in a televised address early Monday that Uighur exiles led by Kadeer of caused the violence, saying, "Rebiya had phone conversations with people in China on July 5 in order to incite, and Web sites such as Uighurbiz.cn and Diyarim.com were used to orchestrate the incitement and spread propaganda."
A government statement quoted by Xinhua said the violence was "a pre-empted, organized violent crime. It is instigated and directed from abroad and carried out by outlaws in the country."
Ilham Tohti, a Uighur economics professor at Central Nationalities University in Beijing and founder of Uighurbiz.cn one of the implicated Web sites said "the relevant authorities" were questioning him about his Web site.
His site has become a lively forum for many issues about Chinese rule in Xinjiang.
Xinjiang's top Communist Party official, Wang Lequan, called the incident "a profound lesson learned in blood" and said authorities "must take the most resolute and strongest measures to deal with the enemies' latest attempt at sabotage."
"We also must expose Rebiya and those like her ... we must tear away Rebiya's mask and let the world see her true nature."
Seytoff dimissed the accusations against Kadeer. "It's common practice for the Chinese government to accuse Ms. Kadeer for any unrest" in Xinjiang, he said.
The clashes Sunday in Urumqi echoed last year's unrest in Tibet, when a peaceful demonstration by monks in the capital of Lhasa erupted into riots that spread to surrounding areas, leaving at least 22 dead. The Chinese government accused Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, of orchestrating the violence a charge he denied.
Seytoff said he had heard from two sources that at least two dozen people had been killed by gunfire or crushed by armored police vehicles just outside Xinjiang University.
Mamet, a 36-year-old restaurant worker, said he saw People's Armed Police attack students outside Xinjiang University.
"First they fired tear gas at the students. Then they started beating them and shooting them with bullets. Big trucks arrived, and students were rounded up and arrested," Mamet said.
Wang Kui, an official with the Foreign Affairs Department at the university, said she aware of no such incident. She said no students from the university were among those killed or injured.
"We are not allowing students to come and go because the situation is chaotic at the moment," Wang said. "All the students are at school, and we are taking care of them. But we are not clear about what's been going on outside."
China labels some Uighur separatist groups as terrorists.
Four Uighur detainees at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba were recently released and relocated to Bermuda despite Beijing's objections because U.S. officials have said they fear the men would be executed if they returned to China. Officials have also been trying to transfer 13 others to the Pacific nation of Palau. The men were captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2001, but the U.S. later determined they were not "enemy combatants."
Previous mass protests in Xinjiang that were quelled by armed forces became signal events for the separatist movement. In 1990, about 200 Uighurs shouting for holy war protested through Baren, a town near the Afghan border, resulting in violence that left at least two dozen people dead.
In 1997, amid a wave of bombings and assassinations, a protest by several hundred Uighurs in the city of Yining against religious restrictions turned into an anti-Chinese uprising that left at least 10 dead.
In both cases pro-independence groups said the death tolls were several times higher, and the government never conducted a public investigation into the events.