China Reports Deadly Riots In Xinjiang Region

China state media report at least 140 people were killed and more than 800 injured in riots in China's western region of Xinjiang. The violence began Sunday after protesters from an ethnic Muslim group clashed with police.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In western China more than 140 people have been killed and hundreds more injured in rioting between protestors and security forces there. The violence involves the Uighurs, a Muslim minority who have often been in conflict with the Chinese authorities.

Joining us for more is Anthony Kuhn, who's in the regional capital of Urumqi. And, Anthony, tell us what started the riots and what it's like there now?

ANTHONY KUHN: Well, from what we understand, the riots started with a peaceful demonstration in which hundreds of ethnic Uighurs took to the streets around the south part of the city marching and chanting slogans and basically demanding an investigation into a fight that happened at a toy factory in southern China late in June in which several people were killed when ethnic majority Han fought with Uighurs there.

This protest here in Urumqi later turned violent. People started attacking cars, attacking passersby. And right now, the city is in a sort of a loose sort of lockdown. The government has declared a three-day holiday. It's cut all the Internet connections with the outside world and it's deployed a lot of riot troops and armored personnel carriers to the south side of the city, the bizarre area and the major Uighur quarters of the city.

MONTAGNE: Tell us more about this region of China. The Uighurs, of course, are a minority and they're Muslim. Is that at the core of why there is so much tension?

KUHN: It's a very complex situation out here, Renee. The Uighurs inhabit Xinjiang, but they also inhabit other parts of Central Asia here. And they're like other Turkic-speaking minorities in the region - the Uzbeks and the Kazakhs - who straddle these borders and who, for long parts of history, were not actually part of the Chinese empire.

Now, if you go out and talk to people about the causes of this violence, you get very split opinions. Many Chinese follow the government's line that this was instigated by a few outside agitators and Uighur exiles who are ungrateful towards the government's development in Xinjiang. And if you talk to the Uighurs, they feel that they have been, to a great extent, left out of the prosperity of much of China and that they're suffering a lot of ethnic discrimination. So views are very divided about what the situation is out here.

MONTAGNE: And Uighurs have been very much in the news lately. Certainly we're hearing about them here in America because of some Uighurs who have been released from Guantanamo Bay. Tell us more about this group.

KUHN: Well, the Uighurs have played a part in this whole story of the so-called war on terror, because the Uighurs who (unintelligible) in Guantanamo were seized allegedly for taking part in military training with groups that had ties to al-Qaida. And a separatist - an alleged separatist group called East Turkestan Islamic Movement was blacklisted by the U.S. and the terrorist organization. But the U.S. never really bought into China's line that these people were essentially an al-Qaida affiliate.

At the same time, the U.S. never really stepped in on the Uighurs' behalf. The U.S. is unwilling to sacrifice its larger relations with China in the interest of these minority groups, including the Tibetans with whom we also saw huge rioting last year. And so it puts these minorities in a very awkward position.

I think that the violence that we've seen out here in the past 24 hours is probably the most serious unrest in northwest China in years, if not decades. And for China's rulers, it marks a national crisis of the sort that they have not seen since Tibet in March of last year.

MONTAGNE: Anthony, thanks very much. NPR's Anthony Kuhn joining us from the regional capital of Urumqi in western China.

This is NPR News.

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