Chinese police break up Uighur protest at mosque

US urges Chinese leaders to show restraint in tackling ethnic unrest in Xinjiang
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Chinese riot police broke up a small demonstration by Uighurs leaving Friday prayers in a Muslim 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 along with riot police as armoured police vehicles blocked roads around the building and a helicopter hovered overhead – the first sign of unrest days after rioting in the city. "You see, this is how they treat Uighurs – like animals," said one woman.

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. China's ruling Communist Party may fear that big Uighur religious gatherings could become another catalyst for unrest after a week of ethnic strife.

Security forces have imposed control over Urumqi, but the afternoon prayers were testing the government's ability to contain Uighur anger after groups of Han Chinese, China's predominant ethnic group, attacked Uighur neighbourhoods on Tuesday following rioting by Uighurs on Sunday. Yesterday Chinese state media raised the death toll to 184, and gave an ethnic breakdown for the first time: 137 Han and 46 Uighur.

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.

The US National Security Adviser General James Jones urged Chinese leaders to act with "appropriate restraint".

The Chinese President Hu Jintao, forced to abandon the G8 summit by the ethnic violence in Xinjiang, has said maintaining social stability in the energy-rich region is the "most urgent task". Mr 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 which, it says, menace Xinjiang.

There appears little chance that China will slow its drive to punish those found guilty of killing Urumqi residents in the riots on Sunday, 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.

Local authorities in Kashgar, a Uighur city in the south of Xinjiang, yesterday told foreign reporters to leave, citing "safety" reasons.