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Mosques reportedly closed in Chinese city

APTOPIX China Protest
Chinese paramilitary police patrol in Urumqi, western China's Xinjiang province, on Wednesday. AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Mosques in riot-hit Urumqi have been ordered to stay closed for Friday prayers in the wake of ethnic violence that left 156 dead, a Chinese official said, and another city in Xinjiang province has suspended visits by foreigners.

The official, who identified herself as a government worker but refused to give her name, said Friday that the decision to close mosques had been made for public safety and that "people should stay at home today and pray."

Separately, officials in Kashgar in southwestern Xinjiang have told visiting journalists that they and other foreigners had to leave the city.

The city's foreign affairs office says that although the city has had no unrest, the decision was made to ensure the safety of the visitors.

In their first public comments on the ethnic riots, China's top communist leaders vowed Thursday to maintain stability in the west of the country. They accused overseas forces of orchestrating the violence.

An urgent nine-member Politburo Standing Committee meeting, led by President Hu Jintao, called on Communist Party members and officials at all levels to mobilize to restore order, promising punishment to rioters and leniency to participants who were misled by agitators.

"Preserving and maintaining the overall stability of Xinjiang is currently the most urgent task," the Politburo said, according to an account carried by the official Xinhua News Agency.

Security forces kept a firm grip on the tense Xinjiang capital, Urumqi, after the region's worst ethnic violence in decades as residents tentatively emerged to go about daily life.

Red stickers put up outside apartment compounds said, "Don't listen to any rumors" and "Keep calm and maintain public order."

'Defeat the terrorists'
Crowds of Han Chinese, China's dominant ethnic group, cheered as squads of police rumbled by in trucks that were covered in banners reading, "We must defeat the terrorists" and "Oppose ethnic separatism and hatred."

With the city apparently under control, the next major test for the government will come Friday, when large numbers of Muslim Uighurs gather for their weekly prayers.

Obul Hashim Haxim, the imam at the Liu Daowan Mosque, said prayers would be held and that the violence would be discussed.

Officials have said 156 people were killed and more than 1,100 people hurt as the Turkic-speaking, Muslim Uighurs ran amok in the city on Sunday, angry over the deaths last month of Uighur factory workers during a brawl in southern China.

The Uighurs say security forces gunned down many of Sunday's protesters. Officials have yet to give an ethnic breakdown of those killed.

In response to the riot, hundreds of Han Chinese rampaged through the city of 2.3 million Tuesday with sticks and meat cleavers, looking for Uighurs and revenge.

Riots force Hu leave summit
The meeting of the Politburo — China's most powerful body — took place Wednesday shortly after Hu, also head of the Communist Party, returned after cutting short a trip to Italy to participate in a Group of Eight summit.

"In particular, we must emphasize the thinking of stability above all else to the cadres and masses of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang," the Politburo said, according to Xinhua.

It instructed cadres to pursue tough punishment for rioters who committed "serious criminal acts of beating, smashing, looting and burning."

"We must by law severely attack those hard-core elements who planned and organized this incident and seriously violent criminals," the Politburo said. It also called for "preventive measures" against "enemy forces who would undermine ethnic unity" and stressed the need to preserve social stability.

The Politburo member in charge of law enforcement traveled to Urumqi and spoke to tactical police officers Thursday.

"You have faced many difficulties, but you must overcome the difficulties to attack splittist forces," Zhou Yongkang told the black-uniformed officers standing on a small square near where Sunday's protest occurred.

Clashes, unrest
The Politburo did not blame any overseas group, but government officials and state media have accused U.S.-exiled Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer and her followers abroad of being behind the violence. She has denied the allegations and accused China of inciting the violence.

China also rejected calls to raise the unrest at the United Nation's Security Council.

"The Chinese government has taken decisive measures according to law. This is totally China's internal affair. There's no reason for Security Council discussion," Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a regular news conference.

Special police officers flew into Urumqi from around the country to maintain public order, the official China Daily quoted the country's top police officer, Meng Jianzhu, as saying.

Obul Hashim Haxim, the imam at the Liu Daowan mosque who is also a member of China's parliament, said the riots were bad for national unity.

"We will tell the Muslim community to do their part to protect ethnic unity and social stability for a harmonious society," he said.

Other areas of Xinjiang — a sprawling, oil-rich territory that borders several Central Asian countries — were also tense Thursday, residents said.

In Kashgar in the southern part of the region, the manager of an Internet cafe said the city did not feel safe.

"The city has a heavy military presence and it feels like a ghost town. No one is really walking around on the streets, whereas it's usually packed with people and traffic," said the manager, who would give only his surname Zhu.

He said many businesses are closed, especially ones operated by Han Chinese who think they may become targets if they stay open.

More on: Rebiya Kadeer | Uighurs