BEIJING — At least 1,000 rioters clashed with the police on Sunday in a regional capital in western China after days of rising tensions between Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese, according to witnesses and photographs of the riot.
The rioting broke out Sunday afternoon in a large market area of Urumqi, the capital of the vast, restive desert region of Xinjiang, and lasted for several hours before riot police officers and paramilitary or military troops locked down the Uighur quarter of the city. The rioters threw stones at the police and set vehicles on fire, sending plumes of smoke into the sky, while police officers used fire hoses and batons to beat back rioters and detain Uighurs who appeared to be leading the protest, witnesses said.
At least 3 Han Chinese and one police officer were killed in the rioting and 20 people were injured, according to Xinhua, the official news agency. Dozens of Uighur men were led into nearby police stations with their hands behind their backs and shirts pulled over their heads, one witness said. Early Monday, the local government announced a curfew banning all traffic in the city until 8 p.m.
The riot was the largest ethnic clash in China since the Tibetan uprising of March 2008, and perhaps the biggest protest in Xinjiang in years. Like the Tibetan unrest, it highlighted the deep-seated frustrations felt by some ethnic minorities in western China over the policies of the Communist Party.
Many Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gers), a Turkic-speaking Muslim group, resent rule by the Han Chinese, and Chinese security forces have tried to keep oil-rich Xinjiang under tight control since the 1990s, when cities there were struck by waves of protests, riots and bombings. Last summer, attacks on security forces took place in several cities in Xinjiang; the Chinese government blamed separatist groups.
Early Monday, Chinese officials said the latest riots were started by Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur human rights advocate who was imprisoned in China and now lives in Washington, Xinhua reported. As with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, Chinese officials often blame Ms. Kadeer for ethnic unrest, though she denies the charges.
The clashes on Sunday began when the police confronted a protest march held by Uighurs to demand a full government investigation of an ethnic brawl between Uighur and Han workers that erupted in Guangdong Province overnight on June 25 and June 26. The brawl took place in a toy factory and left 2 Uighurs dead and 116 people injured. The police later arrested a bitter ex-employee of the factory who had ignited the fight by starting a rumor that 6 Uighur men had raped 2 Han women at the work site, Xinhua reported.
There was also a rumor going around on Sunday in Urumqi that a Han man had killed a Uighur earlier that day in the city, said Adam Grode, an English teacher living in the neighborhood where the rioting took place.
“This is just crazy,” Mr. Grode said by telephone Sunday night. “There was a lot of tear gas in the streets, and I almost couldn’t get back to my apartment. There’s a huge police presence.”
Rumors of Uighurs attacking Han Chinese spread quickly through parts of Urumqi, adding to the panic. A worker at the Texas Restaurant, a few hundred yards from the site of the rioting, said her manager urged the restaurant workers to stay inside. Xinhua reported few details of the riot on Sunday night. It said that “an unknown number of people gathered Sunday afternoon” in Urumqi, “attacking passers-by and setting fire to vehicles.”
Uighurs are the largest ethnic group in Xinjiang but are a minority in Urumqi, where Han Chinese make up more than 70 percent of the population of two million or so. The Chinese government has encouraged Han migration to the city and other parts of Xinjiang, fueling resentment among the Uighurs. Urumqi is a deeply segregated city, with Han Chinese there rarely venturing into the Uighur quarter.
The Uighur neighborhood is centered in a warren of narrow alleyways, food markets and a large shopping area called the Grand Bazaar or the Erdaoqiao Market, where the rioting reached its peak on Sunday.
Mr. Grode, who lives in an apartment there, said he went outside when he first heard commotion around 6 p.m. He saw hundreds of Uighurs in the streets; that quickly swelled to more than 1,000, he said.
Police officers soon arrived. Around 7 p.m., protesters began hurling rocks and vegetables from the market at the police, Mr. Grode said. Traffic had ground to a halt.
An hour later, as the riot surged toward the center of the market, troops in green uniforms and full riot gear showed up, as did armored vehicles. Chinese government officials often deploy the People’s Armed Police, a paramilitary force, to quell riots. By midnight, Mr. Grode said, some of the armored vehicles had begun to leave, but bursts of gunfire could still be heard.