BEIJING – Ethnic rioting in China's far western region of Xinjiang was well planned and co-ordinated to take place at more than 50 locations across the regional capital Urumqi, the official People's Daily reported Sunday.
The account of the violence, in which 197 people were killed and more than 1,600 wounded, followed the official line that Xinjiang's worst ethnic unrest in decades was pre-meditated.
Xinjiang's governor, Nuer Baikeli, told a small group of media, including Reuters, late Saturday that the rioting was an attempt by exiled separatists to split Xinjiang from China.
But exiled ethnic Uighurs have denied the allegation, saying the unrest was sparked by deaths last month of two Uighur factory workers in southern China.
Xinjiang has long been a tightly controlled hotbed of ethnic tension, fostered by an economic gap between many Uighurs and Han Chinese, government controls on religion and culture and an influx of Han migrants who now are the majority in most big cities.
Beijing cannot afford to lose its grip on the vast territory, which borders Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, has abundant oil reserves and is China's largest natural gas producing region.
Citing witnesses and footage from surveillance cameras, the People's Daily said that ringleaders had orchestrated the riots in more than 50 locations across Urumqi, including government offices and police stations, with rioters reportedly driven to some spots in groups.
In the days preceding the riots, the newspaper said there were noticeably hot sales of long knives, some of which were used in the attacks. Meanwhile the successful burning of vehicles suggested a high possibility such methods had been studied beforehand, it added, citing experts.
The presence of purported ringleaders dressed in similar clothing, including women in long black Islamic garb and black head scarves who issued commands to the rioters, was also noted by the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party.
These kind of women were seen many times at different locations on surveillance cameras, the report said.
In the group interview with Reuters, Nuer Baikeli said Chinese police shot dead 12 armed Uighur rioters after they ignored warning shots fired into the air, a rare government admission of deaths inflicted by security forces.
The Uighurs are a Turkic people who are largely Muslim and share linguistic and cultural bonds with Central Asia.
Nuer Baikeli insisted police exercised the greatest restraint but the use of force was necessary to protect citizens and restore order. Stability has been restored, he added.
(Reporting by James Pomfret and Benjamin Kang Lim; Editing by Alex Richardson)