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China struggles to end tide of ethnic violence

Uighur women protest about seizure of husbands by police

Chinese riot police came face to face with a crowd of defiant Uighur women on the streets of Urumqi yesterday. The demonstrators were in the city's Muslim quarter, enraged at the arrests of their husbands after clashes that killed scores of Han Chinese and Uighurs earlier this week. At one point, protesters charged the security forces, some hurling their shoes, but the baton-wielding paramilitaries stepped back.

Eventually, following a standoff lasting half an hour, the crowd was dispersed by the city's ordinary police force. Anyone found to have wounds suggesting they had been involved in street fights was detained. The groups of wailing women said police had entered their community on Monday evening and strip-searched their husbands and sons.

"My husband was detained at gunpoint," a woman, who gave her name as Aynir, told the Associated Press. "They were hitting people, they were stripping people naked. My husband was scared so he locked the door, but the police broke down the door and took him away."

There was fresh bloodshed later in the day as rival mobs wielding meat cleavers and clubs marched the streets. At times, badly outnumbered security personnel appeared unable to control the swelling violence. As groups of Uighurs attacked people near the city's railway station, up to 1,000 Han Chinese seeking revenge marched through the streets chanting "defend the country". Office workers came down to their doors and cheered them on. Some joined the group, which then tried to make its way to a Muslim neighbourhood as police looked on. The protesters were eventually forced back by volleys of tear gas.

The violence – the worst in the region for decades – broke out despite hundreds of police and paramilitaries taking up positions around the city and arresting overnight up to 1,400 people said to have been involved in clashes on Sunday that left more than 150 dead and scores more injured. Truckloads of reinforcements continued to pour into the city in an attempt to staunch the bloodshed.

Last night, as the violence continued, authorities announced a curfew, which was enforced by armed police in an attempt to calm the situation. Earlier in the day, however, the city's party boss could be seen chanting slogans with a Han Chinese mob. Li Zhi climbed on top of a police vehicle and started pumping his fists and rallying the crowd.

Xinjiang is no stranger to ethnic clashes. Tension has grown as Beijing has encouraged the migration of Han Chinese to the once autonomous region, a policy it has also adopted in Tibet. The Uighurs now make up barely half the population. The Muslim Uighurs complain that their customs, culture, and religious freedom are being eroded.

The current violence was triggered after a peaceful demonstration, organised by Uighurs in response to a deadly ethnic clash at a factory in eastern China, got out of control. Reports suggest that Uighurs set upon groups of Han Chinese and set fire to their shops and cars.

That was certainly the story told by the armed Han Chinese who took to the streets of Urumqi. Many were carrying makeshift weapons such as shovels and pieces of timber. "Those Muslims killed so many of our people. We just can't let that happen," one man in a crowd, armed with a long, wooden stick, told the Associated Press.

Elsewhere, Han Chinese watched terrified as groups of Uighurs carrying bricks and knives started attacking store-owners and passers-by. "They were using everything for weapons, like bricks, sticks and cleavers," said a man who gave his name as Mr Ma, an employee at a fast-food restaurant. "Whenever the rioters saw someone on the street, they would ask, 'Are you a Uighur?' If they kept silent, or couldn't answer in the Uighur language, they would get beaten or killed."

Beijing has blamed the violence on Rebiya Kadeer, an exiled Uighur leader currently based in the US. She has denied any involvement.

In an effort to control the news of what is happening, Beijing has slowed down mobile phone networks and internet services. At the same time, state-controlled media has carried graphic images of the unrest. It has focused largely on the Han Chinese victims of the violence.

Uighurs living in exile have dismissed claims that the violence was anything other than a spontaneous reaction to decades of discrimination. Wu'er Kaixi, a Uighur and one of the best-known dissidents from the Tiananmen Square crackdown 20 years ago, said there had been no improvement in the country's human rights record. "For a long time, Uighurs have been discriminated against and suppressed in China," he said. "So much so that we're almost colonised."

Quentin Sommerville is the BBC's China correspondent