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China fires local officials amid unrest

Street protests continue in volatile region

Chinese paramilitary police dispersed crowds gathered in protest after the unconfirmed report of a needle attack on a boy in yesterday in Urumqi. China has blamed violence on militant separatists. Chinese paramilitary police dispersed crowds gathered in protest after the unconfirmed report of a needle attack on a boy in yesterday in Urumqi. China has blamed violence on militant separatists. (Andy Wong/Associated Press)
By Christopher Bodeen
Associated Press / September 6, 2009

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URUMQI, China - Chinese leaders bowed to public demands and fired the head of a western city wracked by communal violence and a bizarre string of needle attacks, hoping to calm uneasy mobs and end protests that percolated for a third day yesterday.

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

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

Protesters marched by the thousands last week demanding the resignation of Li and his boss, Xinjiang party secretary Wang Lequan, for failing to provide adequate public safety. Also removed from office was the police chief of Xinjiang, whose capital is Urumqi.

An Urumqi government spokeswoman and the official Xinhua News Agency gave no reasons for the changes. But July’s riot was the worst communal violence in more than a decade in Xinjiang, where Uighur separatists have waged a sporadically violent campaign for a homeland. Renewed protests last week underscored the difficulties authorities were having in reasserting control.

The firing may also help quash calls to dismiss Wang, a member of the country’s ruling Politburo and an ally of President Hu Jintao.

“I would say that this is the sacrificial lamb,’’ 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.’’

Li, a 58-year-old career official in Xinjiang, played a visible role during the demonstrations. On Thursday, when more than 10,000 people protested through the city, Li and Wang separately waded into crowds to meet with protesters to defuse tensions, only to be greeted with shouts to “step down.’’

“Do I not know that I should protect my brothers and sisters?’’ Li told them, according to footage aired on Urumqi’s TV station and recounted by a local newspaper editor.

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.

A show of force by thousands of troops 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 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 the attacks.

Tests were still being conducted for HIV, hepatitis, and sexually transmitted diseases.