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China Sentences Suspects In Far-West Needle Scare

BEIJING (Reuters) -- A court in far western China has tried and sentenced three suspects accused of joining in an outburst of needle-stabbing that ignited sometimes deadly riots and deepened ethnic divisions in the tense region.

The Intermediate Court of Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang region, announced the jail sentences of up to 15 years against the suspects -- the first to appear before a judge over the scare -- the official Xinhua news agency reported.

Muhutaerjiang Turdi, a 34-year-old man, and Aimannisha Guli, a 22-year-old woman, were jailed for 10 years and seven years respectively, accused of using a syringe to threaten a taxi driver and steal 710 yuan ($103), Xinhua reported.

In a separate trial in the same court, Yilipan Yilihamu, 19, was sentenced to 15 years in jail, accused of using a pin to jab a woman while she bought fruit, said Xinhua.

The report did not give the ethnicity of the suspects, but their names left little doubt they are Uyghurs, a Muslim Turkic people who claim Xinjiang as their homeland.

Urumqi has been struggling to return to order after panic and protests over claims that Uyghurs used syringes to attack residents, especially members of China's Han ethnic Chinese majority, who many Uighurs see as an unwelcome and growing presence in the region.

Five people died in unrest in Urumqi last week, when thousands of protesters demanded the resignation of Xinjiang's veteran Communist Party chief. Officials have refused to say how they died.

The protesters denounced the reported syringe attacks and the lack of trials so far of those accused of joining unrest on July 5, when a protest by Uyghurs gave way to deadly street violence by Uyghurs that left 197 dead, mostly Han Chinese.

The government has said that the reported attacks were part of a campaign by Uyghur separatists to challenge Chinese control of the region.

But there was no mention of separatist charges in the reports of the trials, which also did not say how the accused pleaded or whether any would appeal the unusually long sentences.

The two accused of robbing a taxi driver handed themselves in to police, said the report.

The one accused of stabbing a woman buying fruit was caught after the woman returned to her office, became aware of stinging pain in her buttock and then complained to police.

Police searched for four hours before identifying the suspect, who later confessed to the stabbing, said the report.

The United States has issued a travel alert for a Uyghur area of China's Xinjiang province following the latest unrest.