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It's the worst ethnic violence in China in years, if those numbers are correct, and a sign of how sharp ethnic tensions have become in the remote, desert region. Xinjiang's native ethnic Uighur population has long complained of discrimination by Han Chinese settlers who have flooded into the province and are now the majority.
Thousands of Uighurs poured into the streets of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, on Sunday, according to eyewitness accounts and photographs (Click here to see a CNN map of the region.) The New York Times reports that rioting raged for several hours on Sunday, before Chinese government troops locked down the main Uighur part of the city. The violence began after police challenged protesters who were demanding a probe into the killing of two Uighur workers in a June 26 brawl at a toy factory in southern Guangdong Province. That brawl was sparked by allegations that a Uighur worker or workers sexually assaulted a Han Chinese female worker.
At least 1,000 rioters took to the streets, throwing stones at the police and setting vehicles on fire. Plumes of smoke billowed into the sky, while police officers used fire hoses and batons to beat back rioters and detain Uighurs who appeared to be leading the protest, witnesses said.
Xinhua, China's state news agency, said its reporters personally saw the bodies of two Han Chinese who had been killed by rioters. The New York Times cited eyewitnesses who had seen Han Chinese being harassed by Uighurs, and dozens of Uighur men being led into police stations Sunday.
Xinhua also reported that traffic controls had been partially lifted Monday morning, but that the city remained tense.
The China Daily said that "regional authorities" partially blamed a well-known, US-based Uighur activist, Rebiya Kadeer, for Sunday's violence.
Initial investigations showed that the unrest was masterminded by the World Uyghur Congress (WUR) led by Rebiya Kadeer, regional authorities said.
"The unrest is a pre-empted, organized violent crime. It is instigated and directed from abroad, and carried out by outlaws in the country," a government statement said early Monday.
Alim Seytoff, secretary-general of the Uyghur American Assn. and Kadeer's spokesman, said in an e-mail from Washington late Sunday that the demonstrators were not separatists and that many had carried the Chinese flag on the march.
"They only asked the Chinese government to stop racial discrimination against Uighurs.... However, you will see what kind of brutal force they met," he wrote.
Ms. Kadeer has denied inciting violence, but has spoken out vigorously against the Chinese government's treatment of ethnic Uighurs. The Los Angeles Times added that Kadeer released a statement last week saying: "Uighurs have suffered for years under racial profiling and unjust government policies that have painted the entire Uighur population as criminals and terrorists."