Massive security presence tamps down ethnic tension

CHINESE security forces kept a wary watch yesterday on a far-western city that erupted in deadly ethnic violence a year ago, flooding the streets with paramilitary police, some armed and others in riot gear.

Groups of Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking people who call Xinjiang their homeland, attacked hundreds of Han Chinese on 5 July last year, after a demonstration by Uighurs was broken up. At least 197 people died.

In the following days, Uighurs were hunted by Han gangs shouting for vengeance. It was unclear how many people may have died in those attacks.

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The bloodshed deepened the divide between Uighurs and Han Chinese, many of whom are migrants to the region, where Uighurs now make up 46 per cent of the 21.3 million people.

A year on, the streets of Urumqi were slightly quieter than usual, but workers and shoppers said painful memories of last year were not enough to stop them coming out.

"I am not worried because I believe in China. You can see all the extra measures the government has taken," said Dou Huanying, 20, heading around the city's closed-off central square, where last year's unrest began.

Residents came under the watchful eye of thousands of new security cameras and riot police.

Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the exiled World Uyghur Congress, repeated a call for an independent probe of the riots.

"There is too big a gap between the numbers of dead China has announced and the reports we have received," he said. "There must be an independent investigation."

A propaganda effort to keep emotions in check matched the massive security drive, with state media promoting a push to boost economic growth that would ensure control in the restive but resource-rich and strategically located region.

The anniversary appeared to have been kept out of regional television, radio and print news, which featured stories on ethnic unity and local issues such as flooding and a new airport.

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Some Uighurs in Urumqi said they had been told to stay off the streets, and taxi drivers said customers were scarcer than usual with several government offices closing.

"We've been given the day off, to rest at home," said one student on the eve of the anniversary.

Beijing has pledged faster development to surmount tensions in the region, which has rich energy deposits, borders several central Asian nations and accounts for about a sixth of Chinese territory.

The violence last year deepened economic woes for many in a city that has struggled to match the booming east coast.

"People are afraid to come here, there are fewer tourists, fewer travellers," said Han Shoujiang, an immigrant from Henan province behind the counter of his shop at the train station.

Job ads noting that only ethnic Han should apply were a reminder of the economic divisions that fuelled the violence.

New jobs should be created within three months for about 16,000 families struggling to secure work, the region's Communist Party boss was quoted saying in the official People's Daily. .

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