Paramilitary forces leaving Urumqi

URUMQI: Paramilitary forces withdrew from most of their positions in the Uighur district of Xinjiang's capital Urumqi on Thursday for the first time since unrest that left at least 192 people dead.

A command centre in front of Urumqi's Grand Bazaar was dismantled, shopkeepers said, allowing stores to open for the first time since July 5, when the city experienced the worst ethnic violence in China in decades.

"It is calmer and safer now the soldiers have moved away," one Uighur shopkeeper in the bazaar said on condition of anonymity. He said had his shop had to stay closed longer, most of his stock would have spoiled.

However, paramilitary forces did not leave the district completely, maintaining barricades to prevent vehicles from entering some roads, an AFP reporter witnessed.

These included positions near where the government said police shot and killed two knife-wielding Uighur "lawbreakers" and wounded another on Monday.

For the most part, the green camouflage uniforms that were evident on most corners of the district made way for the light blue worn by unarmed city police officers.

The district's sidewalks bustled on Thursday evening as loudspeakers broadcasting government messages against Uighur separatists had to compete with stall owners using megaphones to peddle polo shirts.

At Urumqi's People's Square, the scene of a Uighur protest that officials said turned violent, black-clad police had removed their helmets but were still preventing people from going into the square.

Most of those killed in the unrest were Han, China's dominant ethnic group, while more than 1,600 were injured, officials said.

Thousands of Han Chinese retaliated in the following days, arming themselves with makeshift weapons and marching through parts of Urumqi vowing vengeance against the Uighurs.

The Uighurs, many of whom have complained of repression under China's 60-year rule in the huge mountainous region, have accused Chinese forces of opening fire on peaceful protests.

They say the number of people killed is far higher than the official tally and that there were also attacks on Uighurs in other parts of Xinjiang.

The Chinese Communist Party's official mouthpiece, the People's Daily, published a commentary on Thursday saying more evidence was emerging to show the July 5 violence "was a serious criminal incident intentionally organised by hostile forces".