09/04/2009, 00.00
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Police patrolling Urumqi as conflict between Han and Uyghurs becomes a real possibility

The authorities are urging everyone to stay at home. Tens of thousands of Han Chinese marched against the provincial government for its inability to protect them. As a result of last July’s protests and clashes, tensions and violence between Han and Uyghur could escalate.
Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – An unreal sense of calm can be felt in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, as police in anti-riot gear patrol almost deserted streets. For the past two days, majority Han Chinese demonstrated in the city’s streets, calling for harsh punishment for Uyghurs. A conflict between the two ethnic groups is now a real possibility.

Yesterday tens of thousands of Han Chinese brought the city to a halt in a peaceful demonstration (pictured). They accused provincial government of being “useless”, some even asking for the dismissal of regional Communist Party boss Wang Lequan, who is thought to be an ally of President Hu Jintao.

Waving banners carrying phrases such as ‘Severely punish criminals’ and ‘We want stability’, and shouting slogans, the Han Chinese protesters accuse the authorities of doing little to protect them.

Today the authorities responded by asking residents to stay at home. The net result is that the streets of the city are almost deserted. Tension remains palpable however.

In July indigenous Uyghurs and police violently clashed. At least 197 people were killed (including many Han Chinese) and about 1,600 were injured, this according to official figures. Unofficial sources claim that most of the dead were Uyghurs. What is certain is that police arrested thousands of Uyghurs.

Attacks on the public by unknown assailants wielding syringes triggered the most recent protest. Reports by local TV said that 476 people were attacked with hypodermic needles. Of these, 433 were Han Chinese, 19 Uyghurs and the remainder from other ethnic groups. But many believe the number to be at least twice as high.

The authorities have denied that anyone injured was infected. State-owned Xinhua news agency reported that 21 people were arrested in connection with the attacks, but did not specify their ethnic group.

Members of both ethnic groups now fear for their safety, concerned about walking down the street, opening their store or sending their kids to school.

In Xinjiang’s capital indigenous Uyghurs have become a minority following an influx of Han settlers, drawn to the province by Beijing’s job offers and business incentives.

For some time now the Uyghurs have complained that they are being marginalised in their own land as a result of policies designed to wipe out their culture and exclude them from all positions of political and economic power.

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