URUMQI, China — The Chinese government locked down this regional capital of 2.3 million people and other cities across its western desert region on Monday and early Tuesday, imposing curfews, cutting off cellphone and Internet services and sending armed police officers into neighborhoods after clashes erupted here on Sunday evening between Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese. The fighting left at least 156 people dead and more than 1,000 injured, according to the state news agency.
It was the deadliest incident of ethnic violence in China in decades. The bloodshed here, along with the Tibetan uprising last year, shows the extent of racial hostility that still pervades much of western China, fueled partly by government attempts to restrict religious and political activity by minority groups.
The riot, which began as a peaceful protest calling for a full government inquiry into an earlier brawl between Uighurs and Han Chinese at a factory in southern China, took place in the heart of Xinjiang, an oil-rich desert region where Uighurs are the largest ethnic group but are ruled by the Han, the dominant ethnic group in the country.
Protests spread Monday to the heavily guarded oasis town of Kashgar, on China’s remote western border, as 200 to 300 people chanting “God is great” and “Release the people” confronted riot police officers at about 5:30 p.m. in front of the city’s yellow-walled Id Kah Mosque, the largest mosque in China. They quickly dispersed when officers began arresting people, one resident said.
Internet social platforms and chat programs appeared to have unified Uighurs in anger over the way Chinese officials had handled the earlier brawl, which took place in late June thousands of miles away in Shaoguan, Guangdong Province. There, Han workers rampaged through a Uighur dormitory, killing at least two Uighurs and injuring many others, according to the state news agency, Xinhua. Police officers later arrested a resentful former factory worker who had ignited the fight by spreading a rumor that six Uighur men had raped two Han women at the site, Xinhua reported.
But photographs that appeared online after the battle showed people standing around a pile of corpses, leading many Uighurs to believe that the government was playing down the number of dead Uighurs . One Uighur student said the photographs began showing up on many Web sites about one week ago. Government censors repeatedly tried to delete them, but to no avail, he said.
“Uighurs posted it again and again in order to let more people know the truth, because how painful is it that the government does bald-faced injustice to Uighur people?” said the student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from the government.
A call for protests spread on Web sites and QQ, the most popular instant-messaging program in China, despite government efforts to block online discussion of the feud.
By Monday evening, the police had detained 700 suspects, according to Xinhua. More than 200 shops and 14 homes had been destroyed in Urumqi, and 261 motor vehicles, mostly buses, had been burned, Xinhua reported, citing Liu Yaohua, the regional police chief.
Police officers operated checkpoints on roads leading into Urumqi on Monday. People at major hotels said they had no Internet access. Most people in the city could not use cellphones.
At the local airport, five scrawny, young men wearing black, bulletproof vests and helmets stood outside the terminal, holding batons. The roadways leading into the city center were empty early on Tuesday, except for parked squad cars and clusters of armored personnel carriers and olive military trucks brimming with paramilitary troops. An all-night curfew had been imposed.
Residents described the central bazaar in the Uighur enclave, where much of the rioting took place, as littered with the charred hulks of buses and cars.
An American teacher in Urumqi, Adam Grode, and one other foreigner said they had heard gunfire long after nightfall on Sunday.
Xinhua did not give a breakdown of the 156 deaths, and it was unclear how many of them were protesters and how many were other civilians or police officers. There were no independent estimates of the number of the death toll. At least 1,000 people were described as having protested.
Photographs online and footage on state television showed injured people lying in the streets, not far from overturned vehicles that had been set ablaze. Government officials gave journalists in Urumqi a CD-ROM with a video showing bodies strewn in the streets, many with blood on their faces and heads.
The officials also released a statement that laid the blame directly on Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur businesswoman and human rights advocate who had been imprisoned in China and now lives in Washington. It said the World Uighur Congress, a group led by “the splittist” Ms. Kadeer, “directly ignited, plotted and directed the violence using the Shaoguan incident in Guangdong.” The statement said bloggers first began calling for the protest on Saturday night and also used QQ and online bulletin boards to organize a rally at People’s Square and South Gate in the Uighur quarter of Urumqi.
The World Uighur Congress rejected the accusations and said that it condemned “in the strongest possible terms the brutal crackdown of a peaceful protest of young Uighurs.” The group said in a statement on Monday that Uighurs had been subject to reprisals not only from Chinese security forces but also from Han Chinese civilians who attacked homes, workplaces or dormitories after the riots on Monday.
The violence on Sunday dwarfed in scale assaults on security forces last year in Xinjiang. It was deadlier, too, than any of the bombings, riots and protests that swept through the region in the 1990s and that led to a government clampdown.
Uighurs make up about half of the 20 million people in Xinjiang but are a minority in Urumqi, where Han Chinese dominate. The Chinese government has encouraged Han migration to many parts of Xinjiang, and Uighurs say that the Han tend to get the better jobs in Urumqi. The government also maintains tight control on the practice of Islam, which many Uighurs cite as a source of frustration.
But an ethnic Han woman who lives in an apartment near the central bazaar said in a telephone interview that the government should show no sympathy toward the malcontents.
“What they should do is crack down with a lot of force at first, so the situation doesn’t get worse, so it doesn’t drag out like in Tibet,” she said after insisting on anonymity. “Their mind is very simple. If you crack down on one, you’ll scare all of them. The government should come down harder.”