Ananth Krishnan

Five people were killed in Thursday’s protests

Instigated by separatist forces, says Minister

BEIJING: Beijing on Saturday sacked the Communist Party chief of Urumqi, the capital city of China’s Muslim-majority Xinjiang region, after mass protests rocked the city for two days.

On Thursday, tens of thousands of Han Chinese, China’s majority ethnic group, took to Urumqi’s streets demanding the government improve public safety following a spate of syringe stabbings in the city. Five people were killed in Thursday’s protests, according to officials.

Li Zhi, party chief, was on Saturday removed from his post, the State-run Xinhua news agency reported. Many of the protesters who marched this week were calling for the resignation of Mr. Li and Wang Lequan, the Communist Party’s regional secretary in Xinjiang. Mr. Wang, a close ally of President Hu Jintao and regarded by many as the face of Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang, remains in his post.

This week’s unrest comes two months after mass riots broke out in Urumqi on July 5, killing at least 197 people and injuring more than 1,600. Xinjiang has seen tension between Han Chinese and native Uighurs, one of 55 minority groups in China and the biggest ethnic group in the region. Some Uighur groups have blamed Mr. Wang’s policies for rising disparities between Uighurs and Han Chinese.

Most of Thursday’s protesters were, however, the city’s Han Chinese residents, who have blamed the government for failing to protect them from rampaging mobs in Julys riots. A spate of syringe stabbings in the past two weeks seemingly targeting Han Chinese led to the renewed unrest. Rumours that the syringes carried HIV-infected needles triggered mass panic, but authorities said none of those admitted for stab wounds were found to be infected.

Heavy deployment of riot police kept protesters off the streets on Saturday, State media reported. Zhang Hong, Urumqi’s deputy mayor, said five people were killed in Thursday’s protests and there were only isolated incidents on Friday. Two of the dead, he said, were “innocent civilians.” Fourteen were injured. He did not say how the deaths occurred.

The unrest comes at a sensitive time for Beijing, with the country preparing to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1. Officials have blamed terrorist groups for the syringe stabbings. “The three forces of separatism, terrorism and extremism at home and abroad are not willing to see ethnic unity and their failure when the July 5 violence died down quickly,” said Mr. Zhang. “So they are using soft violence to disrupt social order and instigate ethnic hatred.”

Meng Jianzhu, China’s Public Security Minister who travelled to Urumqi on Friday to oversee policing efforts, said the attacks were “instigated by ethnic separatist forces” and “a continuation of the July 5 riot”. Beijing has blamed separatist Uighur groups like the East Turkestan Islamic Movement for orchestrating July’s violence.