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Chinese blame riots on Islamic sect, exile group blames executions

February 11, 1997

BEIJING (AP) _ Although Chinese police blamed rioting in western China on a banned Islamic sect, a separatist group said Tuesday that the fighting was ignited by the public execution of 30 young Muslims.

Accounts of last week’s riots, some of the worst in years in restive, predominantly Muslim northwestern China, varied widely. One exile group claimed up to 300 people were killed and a Chinese official said there were no deaths.

All was calm Tuesday, six days after the violence began, according to officials and residents contacted in Yining city, near China’s border with Kazakstan.

Reports of separatist- and religious-linked violence in Xinjiang _ home to Muslim, ethnic Turkic groups _ have increased in recent years.

On Monday, a Yining police officer told The Associated Press that the Uighurs, Xinjiang’s largest ethnic group, started the violence. Demanding independence, they allegedly beat people to death and burned three cars. In response, he said, police fired in the air and arrested up to 500 people.

But Yusupbek Mukhlisi, head of a Kazakstan-based Uighur separatist group, the United National Revolutionary Front, said the riots began after 30 young Uighurs were publicly executed in Yining. He said the condemned, who were alleged to be separatists, were shot in front of 1,000 spectators, including their relatives.

Contradicting other reports, which said the rioting was on Wednesday and Thursday, Mukhlisi said the fighting began Friday.

In yet another explanation, Ma Shiqiang, director of the Yining police department’s administrative office, said about 200 demonstrators of an ``illegal religious organization ... took off all their clothes and shouted slogans like `Don’t sleep. Don’t eat. Don’t work.‴

Ma said no one was killed and that about 100 police officers broke up the protest, arresting five ringleaders of the group, known as ``Tabilike.″

Ismail Cengiz of the East Turkestan Immigrants Association, a pro-independence Uighur group based in Istanbul, Turkey, said earlier this week that 200 Muslim rioters and about 100 Chinese soldiers were killed in the fighting.

The varying accounts could not be reconciled. The governments in Beijing and Xinjiang seldom give permission for Western reporters to visit the region.

Independence sentiment has strengthened among the Uighurs (pronounced wee-gers), fueled by resentment against Chinese migration, the creation of Kazakstan and other Central Asian nations after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and by Iranian fundamentalism.

Last year, separatist groups held running gunbattles with police and tried to assassinate an Islamic leader seen as pro-Chinese. Beijing in turn ordered the Xinjiang government to wipe out the separatists and illegal religious groups that support them.

Police patrols have been doubled to search cars and people, but Ma said there was no curfew or security cordon around the city, about 220 miles east of Kazakstan’s capital, Almaty, and 1,700 miles west of Beijing.

The Chinese Embassy in Almaty, Kazakstan said the border between Kazakstan and China has been closed since Feb. 7, the Chinese New Year, to give officials time off for celebrations.

Update hourly