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Page last updated at 21:43 GMT, Tuesday, 7 July 2009 22:43 UK

Ethnic protests rock Chinese city

Uighurs face off with police in Urumqi, 7 July
Police are dealing with protests on both sides

By Quentin Sommerville
BBC News, Urumqi

Urumqi is again under curfew. China began Tuesday saying it had the city under control, but a surprise interruption to a government tour showed that claim to be false.

As journalists stopped to view a burned out car showroom, hundreds of Uighur women poured in from side streets, shouting and wailing.

Old and young, some carried babies.

They seemed oblivious to the batons and guns of the paramilitary troops who had taken control of their neighbourhood.

"We don't want to fight," said one. "Please release our families. Almost all the men were taken away, hundreds of them, thousands of them! We believe in our police, we don't fight, please release our men."

Uighur defiance

Overnight, some 1,400 men - husbands, sons and brothers - were taken away for questioning. They are accused of being a part of Sunday's murderous riots.

Uighur women grab a riot policemen as they protest in Urumqi July 7, 2009
Uighur women are demanding the return of their men

We watched as they raged at the police, some even threw their shoes. A number of the women fainted.

On the edges of the scene, policemen had un-holstered their pistols, some stood ready with long steel batons.

One of the troops climbed on top of an armoured truck and used a loudhailer to tell people to disperse. Some did, heading for side streets.

At the other end of the road, riot police arrived.

These stony-faced defenders of Chinese rule rarely come face-to-face with such defiance.

Looking fearsome in their dark bulletproof vests and armed with teargas and guns, they didn't respond.

We stayed until we saw the protest end without violence. The women left in single file.

Then our government minders pushed us back into the buses that had brought us there.

Han revenge

Back in a central hotel - perhaps the only one in town with access to the internet following a citywide government shut down - it soon became clear that the protests were far from over.

Han Chinese in Urumqi, 07/07
Han protesters roam the streets armed with sticks and shovels

Suddenly the roads emptied of traffic. In the distance a crowd could be heard.

Then, around People's Square, Han Chinese demonstrators in shorts and T-shirts marched along the streets. They were armed with steel rods and bamboo poles. Some carried knives.

At first they had been shocked by Sunday's brutal attacks - Han Chinese suffered the worst. Now they were angry.

As they marched past, shouting they would protect Xinjiang, and crying, "Down with the Uighurs", office workers came out to applaud them.

"We're protecting our property," one man said. "We've run out of patience," said another.

At a bank across the street, employees appeared in their shirtsleeves, waving spades and iron rods.

In a surreal moment, a group of girls in miniskirts walked by, each with their own 5ft-long poles. It seemed as if every other person had acquired a weapon of choice.

At first the paramilitary forces simply watched - one snapping a picture with his camera phone. But later the streets emptied again, things were suddenly still.

Reports spread that tear gas had been fired at the Han Chinese.

People began heading home as the hour of curfew approached.

Deep divisions

These would be extraordinary scenes anywhere, but they are particularly astonishing in a country as tightly controlled as China.

As the sun began to set and the guards around the square changed shifts, dozens of trucks and buses full of camouflaged troops began arriving in the city.

Despite the curfew, small groups of Han Chinese - mostly young men - wandered around, weapons still in their hands.

Ethnic harmony and stability are watchwords for China's leadership, but there has been little of either on display here in Xinjiang.

After days of violence and threats, Uighurs and Han Chinese have never been further apart.

It will take more than additional troops to bring the people who share this city back together.



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