Image: Han Chinese try to attack Uighurs
Ng Han Guan  /  AP
Han Chinese armed with sticks break through a paramilitary police line as they attempt to attack Uighur areas in Urumqi, in western China's Xinjiang province, on Tuesday.
updated 7/7/2009 9:56:47 PM ET 2009-07-08T01:56:47

Sobbing Muslim women scuffled with riot police, and Chinese men wielding steel pipes and meat cleavers rampaged through the streets as ethnic tensions worsened in China's oil-rich Xinjiang territory, prompting President Hu Jintao to cut short a G8 summit trip Wednesday.

The new violence in Xinjiang's capital erupted Tuesday only a few hours after the city's top officials told reporters the streets in Urumqi were returning to normal following a riot that killed 156 people Sunday. The officials said more than 1,000 suspects had been rounded up since the spasm of attacks by Muslim Uighurs against Han Chinese, the ethnic majority.

In a rare move, Hu cut short a trip to Italy to take part in a Group of Eight meeting later Wednesday to travel home to deal with the outbreak of violence, the Foreign Ministry said on its Web site.

The chaos returned when hundreds of young Han men seeking revenge began gathering on sidewalks with kitchen knives, clubs, shovels and wooden poles. They spent most of the afternoon marching through the streets, smashing windows of Muslim restaurants and trying to push past police cordons protecting minority neighborhoods. Riot police successfully fought them back with volleys of tear gas and a massive show of force.

At one point, the mob chased a boy who looked like he was a Uighur. The youth, who appeared to be about 12, climbed a tree, and the crowd tried to whack his legs with their sticks as the terrified boy cried. He was eventually allowed to leave unharmed as the rioters ran off to focus on another target.

Curfew imposed
After the crowds thinned out, a curfew was announced from 9 p.m. to 8 a.m. Police cars cruised the streets in the evening, telling people to go home, and they complied.

The ugly scenes earlier in the day highlighted how far away the Communist Party was from one of its top goals: creating a "harmonious society." The unrest was also an embarrassment for the Chinese leadership, which is getting ready to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Communist rule and wants to show it has created a stable country.

Harmony has been hard to achieve in Xinjiang, a rugged region three times the size of Texas with deserts, mountains and the promise of huge oil and natural gas reserves. Xinjiang is also the homeland for 9 million Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gers), a Turkic-speaking group.

Many Uighurs believe the Han Chinese, who have been flooding into the region in recent years, are trying to crowd them out. They often accuse the Han of prejudice and waging campaigns to restrict their religion and culture.

The Han Chinese allege the Uighurs are backward and ungrateful for all the economic development and modernization the Han have brought to Xinjiang. They also complain that the Uighurs' religion — a moderate form of Sunni Islam — keeps them from blending into Chinese society, which is officially communist and largely secular.

"We have been good to them. We take good care of them," said Liu Qiang, a middle-aged Han Chinese businessman who joined the marchers. "But the Uighurs are stupid. They think we have more money than they do because we're unfair to them."

'A major tragedy'
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay called the violence a "major tragedy."

Video: China unrest continues "I urge Uighur and Han civic leaders, and the Chinese authorities at all levels, to exercise great restraint so as not to spark further violence and loss of life," she said.

In other violence Tuesday, witnesses said groups of about 10 Uighur men with bricks and knives attacked Han Chinese passers-by and shop-owners outside the city's southern railway station, until police ran them off, witnesses said.

"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," said a restaurant worker near the station, who only gave his surname, Ma.

It was not immediately clear if anyone was killed in those reported attacks.

The authorities have been trying to control the unrest by blocking the Internet and limiting access to texting services on cell phones. At the same time, police have generally been allowing foreign media to cover the tensions.

Cars burned by rioters
On Tuesday, officials arranged a tour for journalists of sites that were attacked by Uighur rioters on Sunday. But the public relations event backfired spectacularly during the tour's first stop — a car dealership in southern Urumqi where several autos were burned by rioters.

After interviewing people at the business, the journalists crossed the road to a Uighur market, where angry women in traditional, brightly colored headscarves began to gather.

One woman who gave her name as Aynir said police arrived Monday evening and arrested about 300 men. The authorities were looking for men with fresh wounds or other signs they joined the rioting.

"My husband was detained at gunpoint. 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," Aynir said. "He had nothing to do with the riots."

The crowd of women swelled to about 200 and they began marching in the street, chanting, "Freedom!" and "Release our children!" They were quickly sandwiched by hundreds of police on both ends of the road, along with trucks with water cannons. Some women screamed at the security forces and jostled the men, who were armed with assault rifles, tear gas guns, shields and sticks. The crowd dispersed after a standoff that lasted 90 minutes.

Deaths trigger riots
Uighurs have said this week's rioting was triggered by the June 25 deaths of Uighur factory workers killed in a brawl in the southern Chinese city of Shaoguan. State-run media have said two workers died, but many Uighurs believe more were killed and said the incident was an example of how little the government cared about them.

In the days that followed, graphic photos spread on the Internet purportedly showing at least a half-dozen bodies of Uighurs, with Han Chinese standing over them, arms raised in victory. Expunged from some sites, the photos were posted and reposted, some on overseas servers beyond the reach of censors.

In a sign the government was trying to address communal grievances, the official Xinhua News Agency said Tuesday that 13 people had been arrested in the factory fight, including three from Xinjiang. Two others were arrested for spreading rumors on the Internet that Xinjiang employees had raped two female workers, the report said, citing a local police official.

Chinese officials have largely dismissed claims that the Urumqi rioting was caused by long-simmering resentments among the Uighurs. They said the crowds were stirred up by U.S.-exiled Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer and her overseas followers, who used the Internet to spread rumors.

"Using violence, making rumors, and distorting facts are what cowards do because they are afraid to see social stability and ethnic solidarity in Xinjiang," Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in Beijing during a blistering verbal attack on Kadeer, who has denied the allegations.

Li Zhi, Urumqi's highest-ranking Communist Party official, also railed against Kadeer as he addressed the angry Han mobs. Standing on an armored police vehicle, Li pumped his fist as he shouted through a megaphone, "Strike down Rebiya!"

More on China   |  Uighurs

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Photos: Inside XinJiang

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  1. A man drinks a beer while collecting rubbish with his cart in Urumqi, the main city in western China's Xinjiang region. The Han Chinese presence is growing fast in Xinjiang, in part because of tax incentives for Han Chinese who settle in China's remote western areas. New cities are springing up in the region. Ethnic Uighurs are being relocated to Soviet-style apartment blocks as their traditional homes are being demolished. (Carlos Spottorno / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Ablimit, 22, Kamal, 18, and Tojt, 30 (left to right), are students at Abdikim cooking school in Kuqa city, Xinjiang. The region, situated along the old Silk Road that crossed China and Central Asia, is unusually rich in terms of genetic variety. Uighur facial characteristics and coloring are roughly associated with half East Asian and half Eurasian. Their ethnic-genetic heritage has been the subject of many specialists. (Carlos Spottorno / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Eid prayers taking place at Kashgar's Uighur Idkah mosque, the biggest in China. Imams and Muslim worshippers from throughout the region attend this prayer session under tight security. Chinese authorities fear religious activity could spiral into a political or separatist movement. Separatist groups do operate in Xinjiang, though the scope of their following is unclear. Some are considered terrorist groups and blamed by Beijing for violence, including an attack and an alleged attempted suicide bombing in the run-up to the Beijing 2008 Olympics. (Carlos Spottorno / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A group of men build a road in Hotan County, Xinjiang region as part of compulsory duties on government projects. Infrastructure in Xinjiang is still at a basic level. Uighurs are seldom engaged in qualified work with specialized machinery. For those jobs, Han Chinese tend to hire other Hans, who are usually better educated. (Carlos Spottorno / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A Tajik woman in a taxi in Tashkorgan city, Xinjiang. Tajiks are a small non-Han Chinese minority group, numbering around 41,000 in 2000, most of them living in the Xinjiang region of China, and with 60 percent of them living in Tashkorgan County. The great majority of Tajiks follow Shia Islam, unlike the more numerous Uighurs, who are largely Sunni Muslim. (Carlos Spottorno / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Syncretist Muslims pray in front of graves in Hotan County. Every visitor leaves a piece of cloth, fur or plastic as a sign of respect to the dead imam. According to orthodox Sunni Muslims, this is a superstition and is totally unacceptable under their understanding of Islam. This tradition is very similar to the Buddhist tradition of hanging clothes at graves and in temples. Xinjiang has a vast southern border with Tibet and there are historical records of a Buddhist presence in Xinjiang since the 1st century BC. Islam arrived in Xinjiang in the 7th century. (Carlos Spottorno / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A Uighur woman speaks on a public telephone in Kashgar. (Carlos Spottorno / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Uighurs eat mutton dumplings and soup inside a roadside restaurant in Kashgar county, at the western edge of Xinjiang. (Carlos Spottorno / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A Chinese military compound in the Karakul Mountains. In January 2007, police revealed that they had killed 18 terrorists and captured another 17 after a fierce battle at a secret training camp in Akto county, a few miles from this camp. It was the first time that China had announced the discovery of such a camp in its territory. Officials said that they had uncovered links between the activists and international terrorist groups, hinting at connections to al-Qaida. (Carlos Spottorno / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. An asphalt factory worker makes bread in a tandoor oven in Taskorgan county of China's Xinjiang region. Hundreds of factories like this are scattered throughout the region to build a network of roads to access the region's resources. In recent years, Xinjiang has emerged as the leading oil producing area of China. (Carlos Spottorno / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Portraits of Engels, Lenin and Mao preside over a classroom in Subaxcun, in Xinjiang. Children are taught to read and write in Uighur, but the main subject is Chinese history. Two independence movements on the part of ethnic Uighurs in the 1930s and in the 1940s are not included in the official curriculum. (Carlos Spottorno / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Beijing encourages promotes "good ethnic relationships," "social stability," and "economic development" on this billboard in Kuqa, Xinjiang region. The Han Chinese population in Xinjiang has grown from 6 percent in 1949 to more than 40 percent, according to official figures. This number does not include military personnel and their families, or the many unregistered migrant workers. Critics of the influx of Han migrants see the rapid demographic shift as a threat to the cultures of Uighurs and other non-Han cultures in the region. (Carlos Spottorno / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. The door of a mosque that is still being built is seen in Subaxcan, in Xinjiang. Mosques are built and financed exclusively by private groups; often they are built in stages, depending on the money available. The first stage of construction usually includes the door and the minarets. Since 2006, a new law has forbidden the construction of minarets in Kashgar county. (Carlos Spottorno / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. CHN: China's Far West
    Carlos Spottorno / Reportage by Getty Images
    Above: Slideshow (13) Inside Xinjiang - Inside XinJiang
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    Slideshow (34) Inside Xinjiang - Clashes erupt in China’s far west

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