BEIJING, July 6, 2009 — -- More than 140 people have been killed in Urumqi, the capital of China's Xinjiang province after deadly clashes between rioters and police.
The unrest began Sunday with what some witnesses described as a peaceful protest by as many as a thousand Uighurs, the Muslim ethnic minority in the region. Several reports say that police and anti-riot troops tried to disperse the crowd of protesters, and the demonstrators refused to leave.
Instead they began throwing rocks and vegetables at police who responded with fire hoses, batons and tear gas. Police then locked down the Uighur quarter of the city, and a traffic ban remains in effect.
The situation is now under control, according to Xinhua, China's state-run news agency, but security remains extremely high. Xinhua reported that 57 bodies were found in the streets of Urumqi and the other victims were confirmed dead at hospitals. More than 800 people are reported injured and officials expect the death toll to climb.
Chinese state television showed rioters throwing rocks at police and turning over cars. It also aired footage of protesters kicking people on the ground, while other people sat dazed with blood on their faces.
Regional Police Chief Liu Yaohua told Xinhua that several hundred people have been arrested and police are now searching for about 90 other "key suspects." He also told Xinhua that checkpoints have been set up to prevent rioters from fleeing Urumqi.
Adam Grode, an American Fulbright scholar studying in Urumqi, told The Associated Press that there was a heavy police presence in the city. "There are soldiers everywhere, police are at all the corners. Traffic has completely stopped, but people are walking on the sidewalks."
He said that authorities took him to the police station Monday morning after seeing him taking photographs. After deleting his photos, they confiscated his passport and released him, saying that his passport would be returned Tuesday.
Wang Kui, an official with the Foreign Affairs Department at Urumqi university, told the AP that no students from the university were among those killed or injured.
"We are not allowing students to come and go because the situation is chaotic at the moment," Wang said. "All the students are at school, and we are taking care of them. But we are not clear about what's been going on outside."
Officials Blame Uighurs in Exile for Riots
Chinese officials, including Xinjiang Gov. Nur Bekri have blamed Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur human rights activist now exiled in the United States for instigating and coordinating the unrest. Kadeer is the head of the Washington, D.C., Uighur American Association.
Today Alim Seytoff, vice president of the UAA said, "We are extremely saddened by the heavy-handed use of force by the Chinese security forces against the peaceful demonstrators. We ask the international community to condemn China's killing of innocent Uighurs. This is a very dark day in the history of the Uighur people."
He brushed aside Bekri's allegations against Kadeer, saying, "It's common practice for the Chinese government to accuse Ms. Kadeer for any unrest" in Xinjiang.
The riots began when Uighurs took to the streets to demand a full investigation into clashes that occurred between Uighur and Han Chinese workers in Guangdong province at the end of June. Two Uighurs were killed and 118 people were injured.
Some media outlets are calling this the deadliest unrest since Tiananmen Square in 1989. But the numbers from more recent clashes are difficult to verify. After the clashes in Tibet in 2008, China's official number of dead was less than two dozen, while Tibetan rights groups said 200 people died.
Xinjiang is a vast oil-rich desert in China's west. Almost half of Xinjiang's 20 million people are Uighurs, but the population of Urumqi is largely made up of Han Chinese immigrants. Ethnic tensions between the two groups are always high in Xinjiang. The Chinese government is wary of Uighurs and accuses them of trying to break away from China. And as in Tibet, the Uighurs have deep frustrations with the Communist Party's policies and the economic prosperity of the Han Chinese in the region.
The Associated Press contributed to the reporting of this story.