China removes city official in wake of violence

The head of a western city wracked by communal violence and a bizarre string of needle attacks has been sacked by Chinese authorities hoping to calm uneasy mobs and end protests that left the city on edge for three days.

Security was tight Sunday in Urumqi, but the city was calm with no sign of protests.

The removal of Urumqi's Communist Party Secretary Li Zhi on Saturday came amid reports of police again using tear gas to disperse crowds outside Urumqi's government offices, and more unconfirmed reports of hypodermic attacks, including one on an 11-year-old boy in a downtown square.

The city's chief prosecutor announced further details about four people arrested over the attacks, but offered little to back up the government's claims that they were an organized campaign to spread terror.

Protesters marched by the thousands Thursday and Friday demanding the resignation of Li and his boss, Xinjiang Party Secretary Wang Lequan, for failing to provide adequate public safety in the city. Also sacked was the police chief of Xinjiang, China's westernmost region that abuts Central Asia and whose capital is Urumqi.

An Urumqi government spokeswoman and the official Xinhua News Agency gave no reasons in announcing the changes. But riots in July were the worst communal violence in more than a decade in Xinjiang – where ethnic Uighur separatists have waged a sporadically violent campaign for a homeland. The renewed protests in the past week underscored the difficulties authorities were having in reasserting control.

The firing may also help quash calls to dismiss Wang – a member of China's ruling Politburo and an ally of President Hu Jintao.

“I would say that this is the sacrificial lamb,” said Russell Leigh Moses, an analyst of Chinese politics based in Beijing. “But it will be interesting to see what the reaction in the streets is and whether this satisfies people's anger or not.”

It wasn't clear whether protesters would be assuaged and two key demands – an end to the syringe attacks and the swift punishment of those responsible for the July rioting – have yet to be met.

Xinjiang police have detained 25 suspects in the syringe attacks, including four who were arrested and four others who were referred for criminal prosecution, Xinhua said.

Urumqi's prosecutor said two of the suspects jabbed a taxi driver with a heroin-filled syringe to steal 710 yuan ($105) to buy drugs.

Overall, a show of force by thousands of troops on patrols restored calm to much of the city. Paramilitary police manned checkpoints around government and party offices and put up barricades backed by tanks at entrances to a heavily Uighur neighborhood – a sign that officials were worried the mainly Han Chinese protesters might try to storm in.

More than 500 people have sought treatment for stabbings, though only about 100 showed signs of having been pricked, according to state media reports. Members of a visiting People's Liberation Army medical team said they conducted checks on 22 patients who showed clear signs of having been stabbed and found no indication that radioactive or biochemical substances had been used in any of the attacks.

Tests were still being conducted for HIV, hepatitis, and sexually transmitted diseases, said Qian Jun, one of the team's leaders. Samples have also been sent to Beijing for testing. In addition, the medical records of more than 200 victims have been checked.

Prosecutor Udgar Abdulrahman said four of the detained suspects were charged with endangering public security. Aside from the two who allegedly stabbed the taxi driver for drug money, Mr. Abdulrahman said the others acted separately. One allegedly jabbed a fruit seller and the other a police officer. No motive was given for the other attacks.

Mr. Abdulrahman did not cite an obvious political link to the stabbings, but said he believed there was a degree of co-ordination. “At this point, we think there is a plot and it is organized,” he said.

Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu said Friday the same Muslim separatists that Beijing blames for the July 5 ethnic rioting also orchestrated the syringe attacks.


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