URUMQI, China, (Reuters) – Chinese riot police broke up a small demonstration by Uighurs leaving Friday prayers in a Muslim Uighur neighbourhood of Urumqi, arresting several who were taken away with hands above their heads.
The action came as the United States urged Chinese leaders to act with restraint in tackling the unrest in the Xinjiang region.
A crowd of several hundred gathered near the White Mosque in the regional capital Urumqi along with riot police with submachine guns as armoured police vehicles blocked roads around the building and a helicopter hovered overhead, the first sign of unrest days after deadly rioting in the ethnically divided city.
“You see, this is how they treat Uighurs — like animals,” said one woman of what appeared to be only a localised flare-up.
Hundreds of Uighurs crowded into the mosque after authorities relented on a decision to close mosques for the main day of prayer to minimise ethnic tension.
Security forces have imposed control over Urumqi, but the afternoon prayers were testing the government’s ability to contain Uighur anger after Han Chinese, China’s predominant ethnic group, attacked Uighur neighbourhoods on Tuesday.
Those attacks were in revenge for the deaths of 156 people in Uighur rioting on Sunday, the region’s worst ethnic violence in decades.
The initial decision to try to silence collective prayers could rankle, but thousands of troops and anti-riot police appeared ready to quell any fresh Uighur protests. Nearly all Uighurs are Muslim, but few adhere to the strictest interpretations of Islam.
Beijing cannot afford to lose its grip on the vast territory that borders Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, has abundant oil reserves and is China’s largest natural gas-producing region.
Local authorities in Kashgar, a Uighur city in the south of Xinjiang, told foreign reporters to leave on Friday, citing “safety” reasons. In some cases the journalists were escorted to the airport.
U.S. National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones urged Chinese leaders on Friday to act with “appropriate restraint”, a senior U.S. official said in L’Aquila in Italy where G8 leaders were gathered.
Other mosques in Urumqi frequented by Hui, a Muslim group culturally akin to Han Chinese, opened their doors on Friday after crowds of a few hundred worshippers began shouting. Mosques in the overwhelmingly Uighur bazaar district of Urumqi earlier displayed notices that prayers had been suspended.
A cluster of Uighurs outside the big Dong Kuruk Bridge Mosque said they were angry and disappointed it hadn’t opened. “We feel we are being insulted. This is our mosque. But we are not allowed in, while they let in non-believers,” said a young man, pointing out that Chinese security forces had been stationed inside and even in the minarets jutting out above an adjacent expressway.
China’s ruling Communist Party may fear that big Uighur religious gatherings could become another catalyst for unrest after a week of ethnic strife.
Uighurs, a Turkic people who are largely Muslim and share linguistic and cultural bonds with Central Asia, make up almost half of Xinjiang’s 20 million people.
President Hu Jintao, forced to abandon the G8 summit in Italy by the ethnic violence in Xinjiang, has said maintaining social stability in the energy-rich region is the “most urgent task”.
Hu described the Sunday riots as a “serious violent crime elaborately planned and organised by ‘three forces’ at home and abroad”.
“Three forces” is a term China uses to refer to religious extremists, separatists and terrorists it says menace Xinjiang.
There appears little likelihood China will slow its drive to punish those found guilty of killing Urumqi residents in the Sunday mayhem, when cars and buses were burnt.
On Tuesday, thousands of Han Chinese, shouting for vengeance, attacked Uighur neighbourhoods, and many Uighur residents said people died. The government has not released any numbers.
Authorities have posted notices in Urumqi urging rioters to turn themselves in or face stern punishment.
Xinjiang has long been a tightly controlled hotbed of ethnic tensions, fostered by an economic gap between many Uighurs and Han Chinese, government controls on religion and culture and an influx of Han migrants who now are the majority in most key cities, including Urumqi.