Urumqi, China (AFP) July 13, 2009Police shot dead two knife-wielding Muslim Uighurs in China's restive Urumqi city on Monday, authorities said, as violence flared again despite a massive security crackdown.
The shooting took place in a Uighur district of the city and triggered an immediate show of force by riot police who poured into the area carrying semi-automatic weapons and closing shops, an AFP reporter witnessed.
"Police shot and killed two suspected lawbreakers and injured one suspected lawbreaker using legal means," said a government statement released in Urumqi.
The statement said the three Uighurs were trying to attack another person from the Uighur minority group on Monday afternoon. Their genders were not given.
The government's statement conflicted with accounts by two Uighurs who said they witnessed the incident from 50 metres (yards) away and that three Uighur men had been trying to attack security forces.
"They hacked at the soldiers with big knives and then they were shot," said one of the witnesses.
The incident, which Uighurs said took place across the street from a mosque, showed the city remained volatile despite a huge security clampdown following ethnic unrest on July 5 left more than 180 people dead.
It was also the first time the government said security forces had killed anyone since the unrest broke out, despite claims by exiled Uighurs that many people had died.
Protests by Uighurs in Urumqi, the capital of China's far northwest Xinjiang region, on July 5 descended into violence that left 184 people dead and 1,680 injured, according to Chinese authorities.
The initial unrest saw Uighurs attack Han Chinese, according to the government and witnesses interviewed by AFP, in the worst ethnic violence to hit the country in decades.
Thousands of Han Chinese retaliated in the days following the initial violence, arming themselves with makeshift weapons and marching through parts of Urumqi vowing vengeance against the Uighurs.
Xinjiang is home to eight million Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking people who have long complained about what they say is repression and discrimination under Chinese rule.
Uighurs also complain of an influx of Han, China's dominant ethnic group, a migration they say is extinguishing their culture.
Authorities have been intent on bringing a sense of normality back to Urumqi, a city of 2.3 million people, over the past few days, while maintaining a visible security presence.
Some road blocks had been lifted, businesses had been allowed to re-open and people had been trying to go back to work despite the deep underlying tensions between Uighurs and Han.
"We were so happy to return to normal work today and now this," said a Uighur doctor who heard police fire the gunshots on Monday.
"I heard what sounded like 10 gunshots and then several louder booms. Then we saw a lot of people running," he said.
Several hundred riot police and other security forces blocked off the area where the incident occurred, according to an AFP reporter who arrived at the scene shortly after the gunshots were heard.
Hundreds of residents were seen walking out of the area, directed by riot police.
The area had been open to traffic a few hours earlier as part of the broader loosening of security controls, the reporter said.
After the incident, some security personnel were standing in groups of five or six with their backs turned to each other and holding their semi-automatic weapons, in a formation that appeared to be aimed at fending off attacks.
Others were carrying semi-automatic weapons with bayonets attached.
Shops and restaurants that had been open earlier in the day were shuttered following the latest gunshots.
One riot policemen, holding a semi-automatic weapon, told an AFP reporter to leave the area.
"Please go away from here, it is dangerous here," he told AFP.
However Communist Party Politburo member Zhou Yongkang, who has been touring Xinjiang in recent days, said the situation was improving.
"People feel more secure and the situation is turning for the better," the official Xinhua news agency quoted Zhou as saying