The rioting broke out Sunday afternoon in a large market area of Urumqi, the capital of the vast, restive desert region of Xinjiang, and lasted for several hours before riot police officers and paramilitary or military troops locked down the Uyghur quarter of the city, according to witnesses and photographs of the riot.
State-run media reported that protesters attacked passersby, burned public buses and blocked traffic on Sunday. The report did not say how many people took part in the protest or what their grievances were.
A witness in Urumqi told reporters that, soon after the protest started at about 5 p.m., hundreds of protesters "grew into easily over 1,000 -- men, women and children, all ethnic Uyghurs -- screaming and chanting." Police arrived quickly and tried to control the swelling crowd by erecting barriers in the street, but "people pushed them over," the witness said. "They were throwing rocks at passing cars and buses." As the violence escalated, hundreds of riot police arrived, the witness said.
"They used tear gas and fire hoses to disperse the crowd. I saw fire trucks, ambulances, armed personnel carriers and what looked like tanks. I heard random gunshots," the witness said.
The death toll was expected to climb, according to a regional government spokesman, as reported by China's official Xinhua news agency.
The Chinese government accused Uyghur exiles in the U.S. of masterminding what was described by state television as a rampage of "beating, smashing, robbing and burning." But representatives of the Uighurs, a Muslim minority, countered that they were holding a peaceful demonstration that turned ugly because of government brutality.
"Under Chinese law, we should have the right for a peaceful protest against what the Chinese government is doing to our people," Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress, said in a telephone interview from his home in Sweden.
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