BEIJING - Police have alleged that women wearing long, black Islamic robes and head scarves acted as ringleaders in the ethnic unrest in western Xinjiang, state media reported Monday.
China faced its worst unrest in decades this month when tensions between the dominant Han Chinese and the Turkic-speaking, Muslim Uighurs descended into violence in the regional capital of Urumqi. Nearly 200 people died in the unrest.
Chinese officials said Sunday that police killed 12 people during July 5 rioting - a rare acknowledgment by the government that security forces opened fire in the worst ethnic clashes to hit the region in decades.
The chairman of the Standing Committee of the Xinjiang Regional People's Congress blamed the riots on "three forces" - extremism, separatism, and terrorism - both at home and abroad, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
Eligen Imibakhi, the top legislator in Xinjiang, said authorities will speed up local legislation against separatism in the western region that has a long-running independence movement by minority Uighurs, state media reported Monday.
He said the public's lack of understanding about laws is also an "urgent problem," adding that the government plans to distribute legal booklets in ethnic minority languages to farmers and herdsmen across the region.
China already has a national law against secession, though there are no similar regional laws. Xinjiang is working on legislation that would "provide legal assistance to Xinjiang's anti-secession struggle and crackdown on violence and terrorism," Imibakhi said.
The violence began when police in Urumqi intervened at a peaceful protest by Uighurs, who went on a rampage, smashing windows, burning cars and beating Han Chinese. Two days later, vigilante groups of Han took to the streets and attacked Uighurs.
The government says 197 died in the unrest, with more than 1,700 hurt. Most of the dead were Han Chinese, though Uighurs say they believe many more of their community were killed in the ensuing government crackdown.
Police said alleged ringleaders included women wearing long, black Islamic robes and head scarves who were issuing "commands," according to footage from security cameras, the China Daily newspaper reported Monday.
"Such dressing ... is very rare in Urumqi but these kinds of women were seen many times at different locations on surveillance cameras on that day," the report quoted unnamed police sources as saying.
The People's Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, said witnesses and surveillance footage captured the presence of young women wearing white, black, and brown robes with head scarves, along with young men in blue T-shirts, involved in the riot, with the women inciting the violence while the men carried it out.
Over the weekend, the government said rioters had stockpiled weapons and planned synchronized attacks across Urumqi. The report did not name individual sources nor offer concrete evidence.
The China Daily said that in the days before the riot there was a noticeable jump in the sale of long knives. Government officials said authorities had gotten information about a protest beforehand but did not expect such violence to erupt.
Local police said they had received reports of attacks on people and property in more than 50 locations across Urumqi by 9 p.m. on July 5, Xinhua said. Targets included the offices of the Xinjiang regional committee of the Communist Party, the public security and fire departments and media organizations.
Xinjiang Governor Nur Bekri said police shot the "mobsters" on July 5 after firing warning shots, and said 12 people died. He did not say which ethnic group the "mobsters" belonged to.
"The police showed as much restraint as possible during the unrest," Bekri was quoted as saying, adding that one officer was killed.
Xinhua cited the local security department as saying the rioters were mostly from outside Urumqi (pronounced uh-ROOM-chee).
The Uighurs, who number 9 million in Xinjiang, have complained about an influx of Han Chinese and restrictions on their religion, language and culture. Han Chinese say the Uighurs should be grateful for Xinjiang's rapid economic development.
However, the ethnic unrest is unlikely to prompt much soul-searching by China's ruling communist leaders, who are unlikely to change course. An editorial in the People's Daily said the country's ethnic policies "most likely require constant improvement and continual development," but that the overall direction "is completely correct."
Government officials have been seeking to ease tensions and look for ways to encourage ethnic unity.
On Sunday, Urumqi hosted a multiethnic beauty pageant with contestants from ethnic groups including Han, Uighur, Kazak and Hui, Xinhua reported. Six Uighur models were among the 45 contestants who vied for the title of 2009 Miss Tourism International in Xinjiang.
"We miss the people who died (in the riot), but we also should cast off the shadow as early as possible," Zhang Tiantian, hostess for the contest, was quoted as saying.