URUMQI, China – In an escalating campaign to stamp out ethnic violence, Chinese forces on Wednesday saturated the western city of Urumqi, helicopters dropped leaflets urging calm and the local Communist Party boss warned of the death penalty for rioters convicted of killings.
“We’re determined to maintain social stability,” said Urumqi’s party chief, Li Zhi, at a news conference. “To those who committed crimes with cruel means, we will execute them.”
Despite the massive show of force, Han Chinese and the Turkic minority Uighurs continued to fight in the city streets, showing how difficult it will be to restore order.
Since Sunday, violence virtually has paralyzed Urumqi, a city of 2.3 million, and authorities fear it could easily spread to other parts of the Xinjiang region, particularly the southern cities of Hotan and Kashgar, which have Uighur majorities.
“Many people think it has calmed down, but we worry it is just the beginning,” said a public security official, who spoke Wednesday on the condition of anonymity. “This is a huge threat to national harmony. It is the most serious violence we have seen since the 1980s.”
The Chinese government has not reported any casualty figures since Monday, when it said 156 were dead. Security officials said it had been decided to hold off further reporting for fear of inflaming the violence.
The seriousness of the crisis was highlighted by Chinese President Hu Jintao’s abrupt return to Beijing on Wednesday, canceling his appearance with other world leaders at a summit of the Group of Eight industrial nations in Italy.
With bands of Han Chinese vigilantes roving the streets carrying crude weapons, swearing revenge against attacks on their people over the weekend, Chinese authorities are not taking any chances.
Thousands of police – some in full body armor, some carrying machine guns and shotguns, others crossbows – guarded main thoroughfares, city squares and alleyways leading to Uighur enclaves.