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Calm Returns To China City, But Ethnic Anger Simmers

Soldiers deployed in Urumqi on September 4.

Soldiers deployed in Urumqi on September 4.

URUMQI, China (Reuters) -- The capital of China's frontier Xinjiang region crept back to an uneasy normality, despite one gathering that troops dispersed with tear gas after days of sometimes deadly protests that inflamed ethnic enmity.

The Far West city was under heavy security after three days of unrest. Officials said five people died on September 3, when thousands of Han Chinese residents protested over a rash of reported syringe stabbings they blamed on Uyghurs, a Muslim people who call this region their homeland.

Troops used tear gas to break up a crowd of people, mostly Han Chinese by appearance, gathered near city government offices in Urumqi on September 5, footage from Cable TV of Hong Kong showed.

But elsewhere in the city, shops, buses, and roads began to come back to life, watched over by thousands of police and antiriot troops, many of them barring Han Chinese residents from Uyghur neighbourhoods.

Talk of fresh syringe attacks persisted on September 5. Dozens of Han Chinese near the city center complained that troops took away a Uyghur man they accused of stabbing a child.

The spasm of unrest has alarmed the central government, coming less than a month before China marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic on October 1, and officials have cast the stabbings as a separatist plot by Uyghurs.

"Saboteurs may be planning more unnerving disruptions to create a sense of insecurity as the nation counts down to its major celebration of the 60th anniversary," said an editorial in the "China Daily," the country's flagship English-language paper.

At least 197 people died in Urumqi when a protest by Uyghurs on July 5 gave way to riots and killings that China called a separatist attack. Most of the dead were Han Chinese, and in the recent protests Han residents have voiced anger that Uyghurs accused of rioting have yet to be tried.

Troops also used tear gas on September 4 to disperse crowds of Han residents who called for the regional party secretary to resign after the hundreds of claimed syringe attacks.

The minister for police, Meng Jianzhu, flew to Urumqi to oversee security.

"The needle-stabbing attacks of recent days were a continuation of the July 5 incident," Meng said, according to the official "People's Daily" on September 5. "Their goal is to wreck ethnic unity and create splits in the motherland."

'Different From The Past'

But in Urumqi, ethnic harmony seemed a distant ideal, with the panic over the claimed needle attacks entrenching mutual fear between Uyghurs and Han Chinese.

Xinjiang's population of 21 million is divided mainly between Uyghurs, long the region's majority, and Han Chinese, many of whom moved there in recent decades, drawing Uyghur complaints that Han get the best jobs.

Most Urumqi residents are Han Chinese.

"Now, no matter whether you are Han Chinese or of an ethnic minority, you feel different from the past," said Wupuer, a 46-year-old Uyghur resident. "There is a sense of insecurity."

Uyghur residents spoke of harassment by police and civilians.

"Look at how the security forces are allowing the Chinese to protest. If a Uyghur does anything at all, any Chinese citizen can call the police," said a Uyghur man, Ali, adding that he had been detained for 48 hours in late July.

But security forces across Urumqi must now also keep a close watch on Han Chinese residents, long seen as reliably loyal to the government.

Xinjiang's Communist Party secretary, Wang Lequan, and his officials have long focused on fears of Uyghur separatism and appeared caught off guard by the surge of Han Chinese unrest.

Han residents have directed their ire at Wang and other officials. Some seeking to enter Uyghur neighbourhoods or march on government offices called security forces "traitors" for blocking their way.

"When they curse us, we feel wronged and heartbroken," a plainclothes military cameraman said on September 4. "We are also here to protect the people. Still, they ask why we are suppressing them when we didn't protect them on July 5."

But Han Chinese residents said their anger over the July 5 killings had not waned.

"Things are returning to normal. People feel they've made their voices heard," said Cao Yang, a Han Chinese college student who said he joined in protests on September 3.

"But it's a problem if you have to take to the streets in such numbers to force any response from the government."