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China flexes muscles in Xinjiang

By | July 10th 2009

URUMQI, China,

Armoured vehicles and trucks carrying thousands of Chinese troops rumbled through riot-damaged streets of the regional capital of northwestern Xinjiang today, blaring out propaganda urging ethnic unity.

But some residents of Urumqi, where 156 people were killed and 1,080 wounded on Sunday when minority Muslim Uighurs went on the rampage against Han Chinese, worried about how the two sides could ever co-exist again.

Beijing cannot afford to lose its grip on Xinjiang, a vast desert territory that borders Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, has abundant oil reserves and is China’s largest natural gasproducing region.

"This whole thing may go on for a few days, but eventually the government has to use force, there’s no question about that," said Bo Zhiyue, senior research fellow and China politics expert at National University of Singapore’s East Asian Institute.

"Because if you don’t use force, the whole thing will snowball. It would spin out of control. Any government would have to do something about it." Han Chinese, who have said they feel threatened after Sunday’s violence, cheered show of military might and took pictures. Uighur residents looked on with strained faces.

"This makes me scared and I think it’s meant to," said a Uighur woman called Adila.

"What can we do against so many soldiers?"

Authorities have posted notices urging rioters to turn themselves in or face stern punishment. Li Zhi, Communist Party boss of Urumqi, said he would seek the death penalty for rioters who resorted to "cruel means" and murdered people in this city divided between Uighurs and Han, the country’s predominant ethnic group.

The notices, posted on walls in the Chinese and Uighur languages, say that those who hide or protect "criminals" will also be punished.

The death penalty is common in China, even for economic crimes. The line of troops, armoured vehicles and trucks measuring several kilometres and blasting out the propaganda passed for about 25 minutes through Saimachang, the Uighur neighbourhood where hundreds of women protested on Tuesday. Helicopters flying only a few metres above rooftops scattered propaganda leaflets over the crowd of hundreds who gathered to watch the security forces march by.

Troops mounted on the truck with guns and riot shields shouted slogans in unison and some of the trucks carried signs in Chinese, one of which read "separatists bring calamity to the country and its people".


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