Riots sparked off by public executions, says leader of exiles


THE leader of an exiled nationalist Uighur group in Kazakhstan said yesterday that riots in China's predominantly Muslim north-west were sparked by the execution of 30 Uighurs by the Chinese authorities last week.

"We have heard that 30 people, Uighurs, were executed by a firing squad," Mr Yusupbek Mukhlisi, leader of the United National Revolutionary Front of East Turkestan, said in the capital, Almaty.

He said the executions were carried out in public in the town of Yining, about 50 km from the Kazakh border in China's Xinjiang province, on February 7th.

"When the parents and families saw this, they lost their patience," Mr Mukhlisi said. He said the executions fell on the fifth anniversary of some Uighur separatist groups' decision in 1992 to use violence to secure independence from Beijing.

Chinese sources say 10 people were killed and about 100 wounded in the resulting riots by pro-separatist Uighurs. Mr Mukhlisi said the casualties were higher, with 25 Uighurs and 55 Chinese soldiers killed in the violence.

Chinese residents in Yining, called Kuldzha by the Uighurs, said the town had been sealed off by Chinese police and that a curfew is in place following the riots.

"No one can leave, no one can enter," one resident said by telephone from Yining in the Yili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture.

Authorities closed the airport and railway station on Thursday, and clamped an after-dark curfew on the town, residents said.

Chinese sources and residents said that at least 10 people were killed, including one policeman, and some 100 wounded when 1,000 Muslim separatists of the Uighur ethnic minority rampaged through Yining on Wednesday to protest against Beijing rule.

The riot was among the most violent for many years in the restive region of Xinjiang, where Turkic-speaking Uighurs are in the majority and ethnic Han Chinese make up 38 percent of the population.

Shops and restaurants were closed in Yining and paramilitary police patrolled the streets. Police had arrested many suspects and were hunting other rioters, one Han woman resident said.

Hundreds of Uighurs had been arrested following the riot, said the leader of an exiled nationalist Uighur group in Kazakhstan in an interview in Almaty.

Local officials said the number of arrests was much lower, but refused to give further details.

Mr Mukhlisi said hundreds of Uighurs had been arrested after the unrest. "They have run out of room at the prisons and are putting people in cellars," he said.

Information from the remote region is difficult to verify. Mr Mukhlisi said telephone lines to the region from Kazakhstan had been cut, and most information was reaching Almaty from Uighur travellers.

A Chinese official source in Almaty said the unrest did not surprise him.

"It is a multi-ethnic region so it doesn't surprise me," said the source. The region is home to ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz as well as Uighurs and Han Chinese. "The (Uighur) separatists are stirring this up," he said.

The local authorities have played down the riot, describing it as a small incident started by "foreign hostile forces".

Xinjiang authorities last year cracked down on Uighur separatists, Turkic-speaking Muslims who make up the majority of the region's population, after a series of violent clashes, bombings and assassination attempts on officials and Muslim leaders regarded as pro-Beijing.

Beijing also imposed tougher border controls along the vast region of mountain and hostile desert, saying it wanted to halt the smuggling of arms from the neighbouring Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.