Police out in force but calm reigns at Friday prayers

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 July, 2009, 12:00am

Noon prayers in Urumqi passed without incident yesterday, allowing the city to cross an important marker on its path to recovery from the worst ethnic violence in decades.

The mood was tense in the Uygur districts in the run-up to lunchtime prayers as hundreds of armed police and paramilitary forces patrolled the streets.

There had been widespread speculation that there would be more violence yesterday, similar to the shooting on Monday afternoon or the stabbing of a riot policeman last Friday.

Both incidents happened just after the end of noon prayers, and yesterday the authorities were taking no chances.

The focus of the security presence was the area around the White Mosque, one of the city's most respected Islamic centres and which regularly draws some of the largest crowds of worshippers.

As the faithful started to gather, about 120 soldiers - most armed with pickaxe handles and clear riot shields - took up position across the street from the gate. They sat cross-legged in rows throughout the service, eyes keenly trained on the crowd.

Worshippers spilled out into the courtyard and across the wide pavement, where at least 500 knelt on prayer mats to hear the imam's sermon via loudspeakers.

Soldiers standing guard nearby could be seen nervously fingering their semi-automatic rifles - many of which had bayonets fixed - during the imam's 60-minute speech.

They need not have worried. The crowds dispersed swiftly and silently, perhaps aware of the surveillance camera fixed to the roof of an unmarked white van parked in the centre of the street.

By contrast, there was no visible police presence at Yanghang Mosque, where another large crowd of worshippers gathered.

But many said attendance was much lower than before the riots.

Xinhua reported that all 433 mosques in the city were opened for noon prayers yesterday. But many mosques catering to the city's Hui minority remained closed.

The mood in the city relaxed in the afternoon. The streets in the city centre were the busiest they have been since the July 5 Uygur-led riots, which saw at least 197 people die over the following days.

But the city still has some way to go before it is fully recovered.

The massive security force may have largely pulled back to garrisons in schools and sports grounds, but they are still needed to maintain the fragile calm.

Guards remain posted on main intersections, stand back to back in threes to defend against surprise attacks.

And the underlying reasons for the violence remain in a city fraught with racial mistrust.

Most Uygurs are fearful of being seen talking to journalists, worried of reprisals from the authorities.

'In our hearts, we hate them,' said one youth who gave his name as Salahadin. 'We hate the government but we hate the Han too because there is no real difference between the two for us.

'But we cannot fight against them. They are many and we are so few, so they can destroy us. It is like an egg trying to strike against a rock.'