Thousands protest over Urumqi syringe attacks

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 September, 2009, 12:00am

Tens of thousands of Han Chinese protested in the Xinjiang capital Urumqi yesterday to demand the resignation of the region's top Communist Party boss for failing to protect their safety as reports of mysterious syringe attacks triggered fear among city residents.

In the biggest rally since ethnic rioting in July, protesters waved home-made banners and shouted slogans as they marched in the streets before gathering at a square outside the government headquarters, several participants and witnesses said.

Police and armed officers were deployed, especially in Uygur-populated districts. Xinhua late last night put the number of protesters at tens of thousands.

'Among the slogans that we shouted, the loudest was, 'Wang Lequan step down,'' a protester who only gave his surname, Ma, said in a reference to the party boss. 'I didn't know there would be a protest, but when I saw them, I decided to join them. We are very disappointed that the government can't protect our safety.'

The protest was triggered by mysterious syringe attacks on the public by a group whose identity has not been disclosed.

Xinjiang Television reported that by noon on Wednesday, hospitals across Urumqi had reported treating 476 people, the victims of attacks by hypodermic needles. Of these, 433 were Han Chinese, 19 Uygurs and the remainder from other ethnic groups.

Zhu Hailun, head of the party's political and legal affairs commission in the region, said none of the needles were contaminated by infectious disease or poisoned by chemicals.

But many residents, including Ma, the protester, said they were not convinced by the government's accounts of the number of victims.

The Xinjiang government first alerted the public about attackers using hypodermic needles by sending out mobile-phone text messages last week.

But as more reports of attacks emerged, and with access to information still limited because the internet remains shut down after the July riots and phone text messaging is still unavailable to the public, residents started to panic and staged a smaller protest on Wednesday.

Last night, Xinhua said 21 suspects had been detained for the syringe attacks, without identifying their ethnicity, and said the attacks were continuing.

Six have been officially arrested and four charged.

But instead of calming fears, the announcement led to increased speculation. In the absence of a credible source of independent information, the public had to choose between believing state media and rumours.

Ma said: 'We don't have any other access to information apart from text messages and state media reports. But the government is not telling us all the truth; they are misleading us. We don't believe only 476 people were attacked - I heard there were at least 800.'

Yesterday's march was largely peaceful, with protesters waving banners carrying phrases such as 'Severely punish criminals' and 'We want stability', and shouting slogans. But Ma said that at one point he saw some protesters badly beat up a Uygur man they believed had just attacked a pedestrian with a hypodermic needle.

Xinhua reported that Wang and the Urumqi party secretary, Li Zhi, went to the scene and called for calm.