BEIJING – Chinese police killed 12 people during July 5 rioting in the western city of Urumqi, officials said — a rare acknowledgment by the government that security forces opened fire in the worst ethnic clashes to hit the region in decades.
The unrest began when a peaceful protest by Muslim ethnic minority Uighurs turned violent after it was stopped by police. The Uighurs went on a rampage in the capital of Xinjiang province, smashing windows, burning cars and beating Han Chinese, the nation's dominant ethnic group.
Two days after the first rioting, vigilante groups of ethnic Han took to the streets and attacked Uighurs.
Xinjiang Governor Nur Bekri said police shot the "mobsters" on July 5 after first firing warning shots, according to a report late Saturday by the official Xinhua News Agency. He apparently did not say which ethnic group the "mobsters" belonged to.
"The police showed as much restraint as possible during the unrest," Bekri was quoted as saying, adding that many police officers were injured and one was killed.
An official surnamed Wu from the Xinjiang regional government information office confirmed the report Sunday. Wu could not say if those killed by police were Uighurs or Han Chinese.
The governor said three of them died on the spot and nine died after treatment failed.
The government first acknowledged that its security forces had opened fire more than a week after the rioting started, when police shot dead two Uighurs and wounded a third July 13. An Urumqi official said the Uighurs started fighting with police after officers tried to stop them from attacking a fellow Uighur.
In Saturday's Xinhua report, Bekri also said the death toll from the unrest had risen to 197. The government had previously said the rioting killed 192 and injured 1,721. Most of the dead were Han Chinese.
The initial protest was centered on calls for an investigation into the June 25 deaths of Uighur factory workers killed in a brawl with Han Chinese in the southern city of Shaoguan. State media reports said two people died.
Graphic photos, however, soon spread on the Internet purportedly showing at least a half dozen bodies of Uighurs with Han Chinese standing over them, arms raised in victory.
Authorities accuse Rebiya Kadeer, a prominent exiled Uighur activist, of inciting the unrest. They have not provided evidence, and Kadeer, who lives in the U.S., has denied it.
Bekri said authorities had received information about the July 5 protest beforehand but had not expected such violence to erupt.
"We could never imagine that the mobsters were so extremely vicious and inhumane," he said in the report, adding that the government believed the rioters had prepared weapons such as rods and stones in advance for use in coordinated attacks. "We really didn't expect that."
In a separate report Saturday, Xinhua said the rioters appeared to have been well-organized, saying weapons were gathered in advance and that the agitation occurred all over the city.
Xinhua cited the local public security department as saying it received reports that rioters had attacked people and property in more than 50 places across the city.
It also said the city's telephone system collapsed under the weight of calls for help.
Urumqi residents have complained that the authorities' response was too slow, with police arriving in some places six hours after the violence began.