Security tight as mosques open in China's Urumchi

URUMQI, China — Security forces armed with automatic weapons and wooden clubs fanned out in China's restive Urumqi city Friday as worshippers descended on mosques for the main Muslim day of prayer.

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Muslim Uighurs heading to prayers had to pass rows of security forces, an AFP reporter witnessed, as Chinese authorities sought to prevent any repeat of the ethnic bloodshed that has blighted the city in recent weeks.

Many mosques were closed on Friday last week for the first main prayer day following unrest that broke out in the capital of China's Xinjiang region on July 5 and left at least 192 people dead.

The city's White Mosque in the Uighur district overflowed with worshippers, with many lining up prayer mats on the sidewalk outside, while around 200 paramilitary forces watched from across the road.

The state-run Xinhua news agency said all 433 mosques in the city were open on Friday.

An AFP journalist at the White Mosque said the worshippers left after afternoon prayers without incident, walking past two surveillance vans parked in front.

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Moments before prayers concluded at the White Mosque, a platoon of paramilitary troops marched past worshippers kneeling on the sidewalk.

Salahudin, a Uighur merchant, said prayers remained firmly under government control.

"The imam only says things that support the government," he told AFP. "People are still afraid."

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Most shops along the district's main streets closed during prayers.

Away from the mosque, the streets were quiet except for patrols of paramilitary troops.

The July 5 unrest, the worst ethnic violence to hit China in decades, began with a peaceful protest by Uighurs but quickly turned violent. Uighur mobs attacked members of China's dominant Han ethnic group.

Chinese authorities say most of the dead were Han, and that more than 1,600 people were injured that day.

Thousands of Han Chinese retaliated in the following days, arming themselves with makeshift weapons and marching through parts of Urumqi vowing vengeance against the Uighurs. Sporadic unrest continued for days.

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Violence broke out again on Monday, when police shot and killed two knife-wielding Uighurs and wounded another who had been calling for "jihad" at the White Mosque, according to officials cited by state media.

Uighurs, many of whom have complained of repression under China's 60-year rule in the huge region of mountains and deserts bordering central Asia, have accused Chinese forces of opening fire on peaceful demonstrations.

Exiled Uighur leaders say the number of people killed is far higher than the official tally and that there were also attacks on Uighurs in other parts of Xinjiang.

East Turkistan Urumchi

East Turkistan Urumchi

Thursday, July 23, 2009
D'Arcy Doran (AFP)
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