Fresh rioting in Xinjiang riot

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PRO-INDEPENDENCE violence has flared in China's restive western Muslim province of Xinjiang, with around 150 ethnic Uighur youths reportedly arrested after a clash with police in the provincial capital, Urumqi.

Tension between Uighurs and the Han Chinese has intensified as a result of Peking's renewed crackdown against crime and ethnic unrest.

The trouble began when about 30 Uighur men wound up an evening of drinking last weekend by taking to the streets shouting pro-independence slogans. After the police moved in, the Uighur crowd grew to around 300 and at least five people were injured in clashes that followed.

Details of the incident, the most serious for some time, were released by the Hong Kong-based Information Centre of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China.

Since the start of the year, Peking has taken an increasingly strong hand in trying to maintain stability in Xinjiang, a region which in recent years has seen riots, bombings and rising violent crime.

This week Amnesty International, the London-based human rights group, warned that three ethnic Uighur mendeported to China from Kazakhstan faced torture and possible execution for alleged separatist activities. They had been seeking political asylum in Kazakhstan.

Xinjiang, a vast territory which accounts for one-sixth of China's total land mass, has a population of just 16 million, of whom about 40 per cent are now Han Chinese after a policy of encouraged immigration. Friction between the Uighurs and the Peking-controlled administration has existed for decades, with separatist groups calling for the formation of an independent East Turkestan.

The extradition of the three men from Kazakhstan to China comes after increased co-operation between the two countries over big oil and pipeline contracts, and shared fears about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Some separatist Uighur groups reportedly have contacts with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Peking stepped up its campaign against separatist activities ahead of the sensitive anniversaries of two Uighur attacks in February 1997: a riot in the Yili prefecture in which nine people died and three bus bombings in Urumqi on the day of premier Deng Xiaoping's funeral.

Last month, nearly 9,000 armed police were sent to Yili (also known as Yining), and since the start of this month at least four Uighurs have been executed for separatist activities, including alleged terrorism.

While few Uighurs probably support bombings by the separatists, anti- Chinese sentiments are nevertheless fuelled by heavy-handed judicial procedures in which large numbers of Uighurs are arrested and processed quickly through a legal system which almost never finds suspects not guilty.

The Chinese government crackdown has extended to Peking, where an area of the city known as "Uighur Street" - a road lined with around 36 kebab restaurants run by migrants from Xinjiang and a focus for the Uighur community in the capital - was recently bulldozed.