KASHGAR, China (Reuters) - Chinese security forces blanketed central areas of Kashgar city in the western region of Xinjiang on Tuesday, days after deadly attacks that China blamed on Islamic militants highlighted ethnic tensions in the Muslim Uighur area.
More than 20 anti-riot vehicles were deployed at People’s Square, a plaza in the heart of the city directly across from a giant statue of the late leader Mao Zedong. Paramilitary officers marched down the square, which was empty but open to the public.
Dozens of armed security personnel manned checkpoints on major roads, stopping vehicles driven by drivers of the region’s Uighur minority — a Turkic group whose members resent the longstanding influx of the country’s majority Han Chinese.
Streets in the city centre, however, were teeming with shoppers and outwardly calm. Many Uighur merchants sold food and scarves in one of the markets and rode about on motorcycles.
“The situation is a little tense now,” said a Uighur resident, who declined to be identified, adding that checks by security forces had been introduced after the attacks began on Saturday night. “They are checking for identification and to see whether there are knives.”
Closed circuit cameras mounted on vehicles kept an eye on the streets. In one of Kashgar’s downtown markets, a group of five paramilitary police carried sticks, patrolling the streets.
Loudspeakers atop a van blasted orders in Chinese: “An incident happened on July 31 ... don’t create rumours, don’t spread rumours.”
Parts of Gourmet Food Street, a largely Han Chinese area with restaurants and shops where the stabbings occurred, was still crowded.
Authorities said two Uighur suspects had been shot on the spot by police late on Monday in corn fields on the outskirts of Kashgar. On Sunday, assailants in the city stormed a restaurant, killed the owner and a waiter, then hacked four people to death on a nearby street, according to the Kashgar government website.
The attack was the latest burst of violence to jolt Xinjiang.
Chinese news media and websites on Tuesday mostly avoided mention of the weekend’s deadly attack.
Muted coverage, and tough words about the shooting of the suspects, Memtieli Tiliwaldi and Turson Hasan, appeared to reflect an effort to present a strong image and avoid a backlash over a cluster of attacks in Xinjiang, one analyst said.
Chinese officials blamed the attack on Uighur Islamic militants campaigning for an independent homeland, and said the ringleaders received training in making firearms and explosives in Pakistan before returning to China.
But Rebiah Kadeer, a prominent exiled Uighur leader was skeptical about linking the attacks to international terrorism.
In an emailed statement, Kadeer said she could not blame Uighurs “who carry out such attacks for they have been pushed to despair by Chinese policies.
“I condemn the Chinese government for the incident. The Chinese government has created an environment of hopelessness that means it must take responsibility for civilian deaths and injuries caused by their discriminatory policies,” said Kadeer, president of the World Uyghur Congress, which campaigns for self-rule for Uighurs.
Uyghur is an alternative way of spelling Uighur (pronounced “Wee-gur”). The group constitutes a minority in Xianjiang province but makes up the majority of Kashgar residents.
Kadeer is reviled by China, which jailed her before sending her into exile.
The governor of Xinjiang, Nur Bekri, visited Kashgar on Monday, and repeated government vows that those found guilty of such attacks would be punished strictly, according to Xinjiang’s official news website (click http://www.tianshannet.com).
Beijing has shown no sign of loosening its grip on Xinjiang, which accounts for a sixth of the country’s land mass and holds deposits of oil and gas.
But tensions have spawned protests and bursts of violence.
Eighteen people including 14 “rioters” were killed in an attack on a police station in Xinjiang on July 18, according to the government.
In July 2009, the regional capital Urumqi was rocked by violence between Han Chinese and Uighurs that killed nearly 200 people, many of them Han Chinese.
China is a close partner of Pakistan, but Beijing has pressed its neighbour over Uighurs who have fled to Pakistan, where China has said Uighur militants have been recruited and trained by the separatist “East Turkestan Islamic Movement.”
Barry Sautman, of the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology, said China, like the United States, would be frustrated in attempts to pressure Pakistan.
“A lot is done in Pakistan that contravenes the formal policy of the government, and a lot of actions are taken independently by Pakistani intelligence,” he said.
“Chinese leaders are realistic enough to know that it doesn’t matter much what they say. It’s a question of whether the Pakistani government can overcome its own internal problems sufficiently to deal with a matter like this.”
(Additional reporting by Chris Buckley and Michael Martina; Editing by Ron Popeski)