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Saturday, July 11, 2009

Conflict-worn Palestinians carve out niches of joy


RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Middle-class matrons shop for imported furniture in a marble-and-glass emporium. A new movie house is screening "Transformers." Teens bop to a Danish hip-hop band performing on their high school basketball court.

Life in the West Bank - in sharp contrast to beaten down, Hamas-ruled Gaza - has taken on a semblance of normalcy.

Exhausted after more than two decades of on-and-off conflict with Israel and deeply skeptical about prospects of statehood, Palestinians here are increasingly trying to carve out their own little niches of happiness.

"We need to enjoy our life despite all the difficulties," said housewife Nadia Aweida, in her 50s, after taking in a dance show in the town of Ramallah.

It would seem that the West Bank, under U.S.-backed President Mahmoud Abbas, has finally made first steps toward the stability the international community has tried to foster with massive foreign aid and training for Abbas' security forces.

But the hopeful signs come with many qualifiers.

While Israel has removed several West Bank checkpoints, other obstacles still limit Palestinian mobility to half the territory. The West Bank economy is no longer in free fall, but its growth is "insignificant" and cannot make up for the continued steep decline in Gaza, according to the World Bank. Whatever prosperity there is depends mainly on foreign aid.

Meanwhile, Abbas remains locked in a power struggle with the Islamic militant group Hamas in control of the Gaza Strip, under Israeli- and Egyptian-imposed blockade for two years and growing steadily poorer.

Israeli settlements in the West Bank keep expanding, and Palestinians fear the idea of "economic peace" espoused by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a weak substitute for a state of their own.

With unemployment widespread, many Palestinians still struggle just to get by. But those with a little cash in their pockets, including those with steady government jobs, say they're tired of waiting for the comforts of a world they can only see on the Internet and TV.

Palestinian companies in Ramallah are sponsoring a pickup basketball tournament, first prize $2,500. A festival at Ramallah's Palace of Culture featuring dance and music groups from Turkey, Germany and France is drawing sellout crowds.

The Danish hip hop group Outlandish recently performed for 2,000 fans, including teenage girls in jeans and tank tops. With black-clad Palestinian riot police watching from the sidelines, the excited crowd danced, whistled and sang along.

The next night, an Iraqi singer had hundreds swaying to his music at an outdoor performance.

"This is new in our life and we deserve to live like the others," said audience member Maher Saleh, 29, who works for an advertising agency.

An internationally supported law-and-order campaign by Abbas has been critical to the changed atmosphere. Abbas started cracking down two years ago after he lost Gaza, the other territory that is supposed to comprise a Palestinian state, to Hamas.

After the second Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation broke out in 2000, vigilante gunmen ruled and security forces were largely powerless. Even ordinary people took it as license to ignore such basics as paying utility bills.

Now they're even being made to wear seat belts while driving. Police are visible in the streets, the vigilantes have handed over their weapons and Hamas militants - the main opponents of the government - have gone underground.

The uprising was characterized by suicide bombers striking in Israeli cities and drawing sweeping Israeli reprisals. Israeli raids in search of suspects still go on, but attacks on Israel have all but ended.

The West Bank's relative calm could help sway skeptics in Israel who feel Israeli troops cannot leave the territory for fear of ensuing chaos and a takeover by Islamic militants.

While Islamists have deepened their hold on Gaza, there are signs that in the West bank, the traditionally secular nature of Palestinian society, which receded during troubled times, is beginning to reassert itself.

Mosques still draw bigger crowds for Friday prayers than they did two decades ago, but men and women mingle easily in public and preachers haven't attempted to stop the summer fun.

The outside world has come closer in other, unexpected ways: China has led the way in swamping the West Bank with foreign goods, and Persian Gulf firms plan to build large housing complexes.

The new feeling of safety has encouraged some Palestinians to invest, particularly in the former militant strongholds of Nablus and Jenin in the northern West Bank, though most business people still hedge their bets.

In Nablus, cinemas were shut down by uprising activists in the late 1980s, and when one briefly reopened in 2006, militants shut it at gunpoint, saying it was inappropriate to have fun at a time of national struggle.

But now the 175-seat Cinema City, built for $2 million in a new 10-story commercial high-rise, is showing four films a day, mainly Egyptian dramas and comedies but also Hollywood fare like "Transformers" (the 2008 version; the newly released sequel isn't here yet).

A former Nablus gunman, Mahdi Abu Ghazaleh, embodies the change. Once a member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a feared militia, he has won amnesty from Israel, like many of his cohorts. He got married this month and now works in the family wholesale business, selling leather goods and plastics.

In Jenin, the flagship of change is Herbawi home furnishings, a seven-story tribute to consumerism with gleaming floors and carefully arranged displays. A world away from the West Bank's typical mom-and-pop stores, it carries Krupps espresso machines, along with furniture imported from Malaysia and Turkey.

Durgham Zakarneh, 32, makes only makes $600 a month as a civil servant, but he has managed to buy a refrigerator for $400 in 11 monthly payments. "Life is much better now," he said. "People can do business without worrying."

Other Herbawi stores will open soon in other West Bank cities, said Ziad Turabi, manager of the fledgling chain. Like the Nablus cinema manager, Turabi said he wouldn't have made the $4 million investment in Jenin without the new sense of security, provided in part by disciplined police freshly trained in neighboring Jordan in a U.S.-sponsored program.

However, Israeli checkpoints still put a damper on the business - though Israel would argue the presence of its troops also helps keep a lid on militants.

The Israeli separation barrier, built to keep out suicide attackers, cuts off the Herbawi store in Jenin from a valued clientele - Israeli Arabs. Israel doesn't allow its citizens to drive through the barrier crossing closest to Jenin, so they have to detour for miles to get to Herbawi's.

Even so, there's more freedom of movement. The Hawara roadblock outside Nablus used to be the West Bank's worst bottleneck, allowing Palestinians to cross only on foot after long waits. Now, for the first time since 2000, they can drive through.

The Israeli army has loosened the other checkpoints in its noose around the city, and large crowds are expected at the city's monthlong shopping festival, which will feature an attempt to get into the Guinness Book of World Records with a city-block-length tray of kanafe, a sweet-and-sour pastry

Saleh, the ad agency employee, said he's ready to have a good time after years of gloom.

"We had an uprising, we had hardship under occupation," he said. "We need singing and joy. We need to live a human life."

UN investigator: Gaza war report will be balanced

A United Nations report on Israel's offensive against Hamas in Gaza at the start of the year will be fair, balanced and unbiased, Israel Radio quoted the head of a team of UN investigators as saying on Saturday.

Richard Goldstone made the pledge during an interview with Channel 1 that was aired Saturday, Israel Radio said, in which he noted that the report would also deal with the 2006 abduction of Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit by Gaza militants.

Goldstone, a South African judge who prosecuted war crimes in the former
Y ugoslavia and Rwanda, added that he had initially declined the UN's request that he lead the investigation, according to Israel Radio.
The judge only agreed to head it after the president of the UN Human Rights Council assured him that the report would be balanced, he said.

In response to a question on why the UN did not launch a probe into the years of Gaza rocket fire against southern Israel, Goldstone, who is Jewish, said non-governmental groups had already raised this issue, and that Israel itself did not request this at the UN Security Council.

Goldstone reportedly told the TV station that he tried to persuade Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to approve official Israeli cooperation with the committee, but his request was rejected.

The IDF says that a total of 1,166 Palestinians were killed in the operation, the majority of whom were militants; Palestinians, however, say that more than 1,400 were killed, including over 900 civilians.

Israel's stated goals in the war were to halt the cross-border rocket fire and to destroy the infrastructure of the militant group Hamas, which rules the coastal strip.

The UN team's final report on the conflict is expected to be released toward the end of September.

Climbing toll raises British doubts on Afghanistan

WOOTTON BASSETT, England (AP) — Thousands of mourners bowed their heads in tribute Friday to the passing coffins of British soldiers killed in a new offensive in Afghanistan, where the climbing toll has created doubts in Britain about the human cost of the war.

News of 15 battlefield deaths in 10 days has many Britons rethinking the country's commitment to a conflict that seems no closer to a successful conclusion than when troops first arrived seven years ago.

A Ministry of Defense spokeswoman said a total of eight deaths were announced Friday, making it one of the darkest days of the war. She spoke on condition of anonymity in line with department policy.

"The casualties should fix peoples' minds on the fact that we've let the soldiers down," said Adam Holloway, an opposition Conservative Party lawmaker who sits on Parliament's defense committee. "The death toll means we should do it properly or we shouldn't do it at all."

Holloway, a frequent visitor to Afghanistan, said Britain has never had the troop strength needed to hold ground there and has failed to provide the promised security or reconstruction, leading many Afghans to believe the Taliban militants will outlast Western forces.

"We're in a mess," he said.

He cautioned that there is still no widespread public revolt against the government's war policy. He said his constituents do not seem extremely worried about the troubled Afghan campaign, despite the increasing casualties.

But some communities are grieving. Schoolchildren, businessmen and army veterans stood side by side in Wootton Bassett, a small market town about 85 miles (135 km) west of London, as the bodies of five soldiers killed between Saturday and Tuesday were driven through the crowds after being flown to a nearby air base.

Wootton Bassett's mayor, Steve Bucknell, said it was becoming increasingly hard to accept the rising number of British casualties.

"We keep on asking ourselves how many more? Each time we pray it's the last one, knowing it probably isn't going to be," Bucknell said.

It has become traditional for the residents to line the streets when hearses carrying soldiers' coffins pass through the town on the sad trip from a military airport to a cemetery.

The casualty count mounted Friday night when officials said five soldiers were killed in two separate explosions while on patrol. Earlier in the evening, the Ministry of Defense announced that a soldier from the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment had been killed in an explosion. Two other deaths were announced earlier in the day.

The names of the dead soldiers are likely to be released in the next 24 hours.

The deaths have come in volatile southern Helmand province in the past nine days amid a new offensive to uproot Taliban fighters. Seven years after British forces first deployed to Afghanistan — and after the loss of 185 troops — ex-military chiefs are criticizing tactics and equipment while members of the public wonder about the benefit of taking part in the conflict.

Defense Secretary Bob Ainsworth and Prime Minister Gordon Brown claim that Britain's role in Afghanistan is crucial to root out extremist terrorists who could potentially attack the United Kingdom, and to prevent a tide of Afghan heroin from reaching British streets.

Brown said Friday that the war is vital to Britain's security.

"There is a chain of terror that runs from the mountains and towns of Afghanistan to the streets of Britain," he told reporters at the G-8 summit in L'Aquila, Italy. "Having talked to President Obama and the rest of the world leaders, there is a recognition that this is a task the world has got to accept together and this is a task we have got to fulfill."

Michael Clarke, head of London-based military think tank the Royal United Services Institute, said public concern is mounting and urged politicians to be more honest about Britain's initial reasons for joining the 2001 invasion.

"What they won't really say is that it's about the credibility of the NATO alliance, and our military relationship with the United States," Clarke said.

Some critics say that Britain should either withdraw from the mission, or that troops must be provided with better equipment, including more helicopters. Britain, the United States and Canada have long complained that they have engaged in heavy fighting in Afghanistan while some European nations have shied away from combat roles.

Tony Philippson, whose son James was killed in Afghanistan in 2006, said the public remained skeptical about whether foreign troops will ever be able to suppress the Taliban and bring peace to the country.

"I've always felt it was a risky business and I think it's still on a knife edge about whether they can succeed," Philippson told the BBC.

Gen. Charles Guthrie, the head of Britain's military between 1997 and 2001, said he believes British soldiers have died as a direct result of a shortage of helicopters for troops in Afghanistan. British troops are suffering heavy casualties from roadside bombs, and a lack of helicopters mean soldiers must make more journey across Helmand by road.

"If there had been more, it is very likely fewer soldiers would have been killed by roadside bombs," Guthrie — a longtime advocate of higher defense spending — was quoted as telling the Daily Mail newspaper.

Britain's defense ministry declined to disclose how many helicopters Britain has in Afghanistan on security grounds, but said additional aircraft are being sent to support the mission.

The ministry said that the two latest casualties died in separate incidents Thursday. The bloodshed has intensified as Afghans prepare for elections planned for next month.

US advised to send even more troops to Afghanistan

The new commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan asks Washington to dispatch thousands of additional US troops in the face of increasing Taliban insurgency in the war-torn country.

General Stanley McChrystal, who took command last month, said in a review that "thousands more US advisors and personnel" were required to curb the Taliban-linked insurgency, the Washington Post reported.

US President Barack Obama has already deployed a new wave of 21,000 US soldiers in several southern and eastern insurgency-hit provinces where foreign troops have lost several areas to the Taliban.

Obama has identified the conflict in Afghanistan as the largest national security threat facing the US and its allies.

Taliban strongholds have been a regular scene of heavy fighting against foreign-backed government forces even though some 90,000 US-led troops have been struggling to defeat the insurgents.

Taliban-linked militants have killed dozens of US-led troops across the volatile country during the past ten days.

British Defense Secretary Bob Ainsworth on Wednesday predicted that more NATO troops would be killed in Afghanistan, describing the current situation in the country as serious.

Fifteen UK soldiers have died within the past 10 days in southern Afghanistan.

Top US commander General David Petraeus says that forces stationed in Afghanistan will face 'tough fighting' with Taliban militants even beyond 2009.

McChrystal has also informed US Defense Secretary Robert Gates of his support for more Afghan forces during discussions this week.

The top commander also demanded US authorities to "spend billions more than the 7.5 billion dollars per year" that it now has budgeted for the Afghanistan war.

The Afghan war has already inflicted serious damage to the US economy and has brought poverty to many who reside in Afghanistan.

5 NATO soldiers killed in Afghanistan

KABUL, July 11 (Xinhua) -- Five soldiers of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) were killed in Afghanistan's troubled southern region, according to a press release of the alliance on Saturday.

"Five international Security Assistance Force (ISAF) service members were killed in an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) strike in southern Afghanistan on July 10," the press release said.

However, it did not identify the nationality of the victims, saying it is ISAF policy not to release the nationality of any casualties prior to the relevant national authority doing so.

Troops from the U.S., Britain, Netherlands, Australia and Canada have been stationed in south Afghanistan to strengthen stability in Taliban hotbed.

A massive operation with the involvement of nearly 5,000 Afghan and U.S. Marines has been going on against Taliban hideouts in Helmand province since July 2.

Taliban fighters have vowed to speed up activities this year in Afghanistan and disrupt the presidential election set for August 20 in the post-Taliban country.

Afghan blast kills 13 children

Thirteen elementary school students were among 25 people killed in a bomb blast in central Afghanistan on Thursday.

Officials said the bomb was detonated in an overturned timber truck, and caused a massive blast that destroyed shops and scattered debris over a huge area in the Mohammad Agha district of Logar province.

At least 13 children from a nearby school were killed, said provincial official Kamaluddin Zadran. Two other children were wounded and three were missing, he said.

A total of 21 civilians and four police officers also died in the blast, Zadran said.

Provincial police Chief Mustafa Khan said the truck overturned on the road late Wednesday. When officials arrived to deal with the overturned truck on Thursday morning, it is believed, militants used a remote to detonate the bomb, which was likely stashed between the timber in the back, he said.

Authorities said they suspected the truck may have been heading down main road south to Kabul with the explosives.

Militants regularly use roadside bomb attacks against Afghan and foreign troops and police, but the majority of the victims have been civilians. Explosives are also legally permitted in Afghanistan for some activities, including forestry.

The powerful blast sent debris more than two kilometres, officials said, and left a huge crater in the ground.

Picking up the pieces

Nearby mud houses collapsed and some vehicles in the area were left twisted and charred, according to eyewitness reports.

"I saw a big fire and smoke from the main road," local Lal Mohammad told The Associated Press. "I collected five bodies myself and then picked up body parts."

The blast happened hundreds of kilometres away from a major U.S. military offensive underway in southern Helmand province, and the two events do not appear to be related.

A roadside bomb also killed two NATO soldiers in southern Afghanistan on Thursday. Their nationalities have not been released, but there is no indication they were Canadian.

About 3,000 Canadian soldiers are based in the southern province of Kandahar.

19 militants killed in S Afghanistan

KABUL, July 11 (Xinhua) -- Afghan National Police (ANP) backed by the U.S.-led Coalition troops eliminated 19 armed militants in Afghanistan's southern Uruzgan province, according to a statement of Interior Ministry released here Saturday.

"A joint operation of ANP and U.S.-led coalition forces in Charchino district of Uruzgan claimed the lives of 15 enemies on Friday," the statement said.

A number of arms and ammunition including one rocket propelled grenade, machine gun and two mines were also seized by police during the operation, it said.

However, it did not say if there were any casualties on the troops.

Meantime, a massive operation involving nearly 5,000 Afghan and U.S. Marines has been continuing in the neighboring Helmand province since July 2 to restore government control in Taliban-held territories.

Taliban militants who staged a bloody comeback three years ago have vowed to speed up their attacks against Afghans and the U.S.-led troops based in the post-Taliban central Asian state.

Bob Ainsworth: not backing troops in Afghanistan is 'disgraceful'

Bob Ainsworth, the Defence Secretary, has insisted that the war in Afghanistan can be won despite the terrible toll being taken by British soldiers in the country.

The call came at 4am. Even before he answered, Bob Ainsworth knew he was about to receive more bad news from the front-line in Helmand.

The defence secretary's worst fears were confirmed when the voice on the end of the line said: "Secretary of State, I have some bad news. Earlier today we lost six men in an attack in Helmand."

Those deaths and the loss of another two soldiers in Southern Afghanistan brought the number of troops killed in southern Afghanistan to 184, four more than those who died in Iraq.

It has been a tough time for Mr Ainsworth, who until a month ago was a junior member of the cabinet and, outside his constituency, just another relatively unknown Labour MP.

Since the 1st of July he has been told on several occasions that yet another British soldier has fallen while fighting in, what much of the public now believes to be an intractable war with no end in sight.

But despite the recent "terrible" losses, Mr Ainsworth, remains convinced that the war in Afghanistan can be won.

In his first interview with a national newspaper since taking up his post, the defence secretary said that he found the recent deaths very hard to take but added that it was important for the public and the government to show resolve during what was clearly a "testing time for the country".

He said: "My first thoughts were for the families of the dead. It's pretty grim stuff and its horribly hard to take but it's not my son, husband or father who has been killed.

"If those who have lost loved ones in Afghanistan questioned whether or not the mission was worth the cost, then I would find that difficult but that isn't the way the armed forces think.

"They don't think they are being defeated in Afghanistan – quite the reverse. When they lose a mate they find it very hard but straight away they are back into the job.

"What can you do other than back them up and if the public failed to do [so] that would be disgraceful."

Mr Ainsworth also revealed that he knew Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, who was killed last week when his Viking armoured vehicle was destroyed by an improvised explosive device.

"Rupert was the military assistant to the last secretary of state and I remember him as this big smiley fellow who was the life and soul of this office. His death was a tragedy."

Speaking from his office in Whitehall, the defence secretary said he acknowledged that "a mood of gloom" now existed within the UK but added that he was convinced the war in Afghanistan was winnable.

"People are dying and it would be pretty strange if difficult questions weren't being asked," he said.

"But there is a mood contrast between what's happening in Afghanistan where morale is high – I was there last week and saw this – and what is happening in the UK.

"This is a war we can win. We can make Afghanistan a better place for the Afghans and a safer place for us and thereby make the region a darn site more stable than it is and has been for a long period of time.

"I believe we can do that but I don't think we can do that in a short period of time. But courage is not enough, we have got to have patience and resolve. Remember we are there to protect our national security."

So if the mission in Afghanistan is vital to the security of the British state then why is it not properly resourced? Why have commanders been told that they will not be getting more troops and why is there still a shortage of helicopters?

Mr Ainsworth insists that the government is supporting its troops in the field but is clearly wary of criticising the Treasury which has so far refused to fund the extra troop reinforcements called for by defence chiefs. "We have 9,000 there now."

But 700 of those will return after the elections.

Mr Ainsworth continues: "Well we have 9,000 for the period of the elections. Whether we come down from 9,000 after the election will be looked at."

But why should the chiefs not be given what they want? If the mission is so critically important to the security of the UK why not send more troops?

"We are making a huge contribution," Mr Ainsworth responds. "We have 9,000 troops in southern Afghanistan. I want this to be sustainable in terms of equipment and sustainable in terms of people.

"I want us to make the contribution we are able to make but also recognise as well that we are part of a coalition. There are huge increases of troops in Helmand.

"The Americans have just put a brigade in to the province. But the very notion that the Americans are coming in to bale us out is disgusting."

Billions have been spent on equipment but nothing on aircraft so why not go and buy some Chinooks from the Americans or lease them?

"You don't just go and buy some Chinooks and that gives you an extra number of flying hours.

"You have to have a training methodology, you have to have crews, you have to keep them flying. Its flying hours that matter and helicopter availability that matters not the number of frames that you might have."

When he is asked about the eight Chinooks which have been sitting in Boscombe Down gathering dust since 2001; helicopters which were bought for use by special forces but were unable to fly at night because of software problems, Mr Ainsworth shifts in his seat, looking uncomfortable.

"You're right we have got those eight and we are working on them and I am not saying that that is something anyone can be proud of. It started under a Tory government and continued under our government. But those eight will go into theatre."

Again I interject and tell the minister that while he says that the aircraft will be used in Afghanistan, the head of the RAF recently said that they would only be used for training.

"Well some of those will be used for training," Mr Ainsworth replies. "We cannot have a Chinook fleet out there and not have a training fleet back here.

"We have got to configure the fleet so that we can do the business in the correct way but those eight will be available to the fleet next year and as many of them as is sensible to put at the front line will be put at the front line."

Is that why no more were bought "No, no – look I know what Liam Fox (the shadow defence secretary) is saying."

But it's not just him, there is a head of steam building up over the issue of helicopters.

Looking increasingly frustrated, Mr Ainsworth adds: "There are people who are demanding more helicopters and who can blame them?

"They want more of anything they can get there hands on but we have had a 60 per cent up lift in helicopter frames in theatre in the last two years.

"We will have the Merlin (Royal Navy helicopter), we will have the upgraded Lynx (army Air Corps helicopter) and we will have the upgrade on the Chinook, which means it will be able to carry an extra 12 people. So all around, we are stepping up the helicopter availability and capability. You cannot just go and buy a Chinook."

Mr Ainsworth also warned of dire consequences for Afghanistan and the rest of the world if Nato was to fail in its mission.

He continued: "If we fail, the consequences are enormous. The Afghan government will fail and the Taliban in all probability will replace them and they will not be any different from the one that existed in 2001.

"There is a chance that they might have learnt their lessons and won't do business with international Jihadists but I doubt it very much. So it will become an epicentre of terror.

"And the message which will go out to the rest of the world is that Nato does not have the will to take on difficult tasks.

"I would be hugely worried if I thought it would fail, but I genuinely think we can do this. We are at a position where we are losing soldiers and quite rightly that doubt over the mission has arisen but I believe we can succeed.

"This is a far away land which a lot of Army's have marched over in history and which hasn't lead to huge improvements in the country and so people are bound to say that this is an enormously difficult task.

"But look at what we are achieving in the current operation. We are attacking the heartland area of a very ingrained insurgency and we are making progress.

"We have lost people, they have been terrible losses but we have killed an awful lot of enemy as well. We've killed them because they are standing and fighting because that area is of vital importance to them."

The defence secretary also said that both Nato and the Afghan government should be prepared to talk and listen to members of the Taliban who were prepared to lay down their weapons.

He added: "We can deal with the Taliban – not all of them are hardened international terrorists. There are lots of people fighting there with different motives and if we have any sense at all we should be trying to peal them off.

"We ought to try and do that through the Afghan government and when I met President Karzai he told me that reconciliation would be part of his presidential platform. So for all the right reasons, we ought to be trying to split the insurgency.

"There are some people though who are utterly irreconcilable to our way of life and our very existence and if they think we have not got the resolve to see this through at the political level then why on Earth would they reconcile."

He defined the "end state" as the moment when Nato could claim success.

"The end state will be a government that is acceptable to the people, with growing influence on the people and with an ability to provide security. And that would equal success and would be the time for us to leave."

Calm restored in Urumqi

PICTURE OF STABILITY: The Erdaoqiao market in Urumqi on Saturday. With the reopening of shops, banks and post office outlets, life in Urumqi is returning to normal. - PHOTO: XINHUA

BEIJING: One week after ethnic violence engulfed Urumqi in China’s Muslim-majority Xinjiang region, calm appears to have been restored to the troubled city. But what exactly transpired on the afternoon of July 5 and led to the violence which claimed 184 lives and injured thousands still remains unclear, with conflicting accounts of the incidents from the Chinese government and ethnic Uighur exiled groups.

The Chinese government has accused an exiled Uighur organisation, known as the World Uighur Congress, of organising the mass riots. On Saturday, the Chinese government said “a massive conspiracy” hatched overseas led to the unrest and evidence pointed to Rebiya Kadeer, the United States-based leader of the WUC, as the mastermind behind the violence. Most of the 184 dead in last week’s violence were Han Chinese, China’s majority ethnic group. Exiled Uighur groups claim the Chinese government has downplayed the number of Uighur deaths.

On Saturday, Chinese media widely accused Ms. Kadeer of a campaign of “misinformation” aimed at winning popular support in the West. On Tuesday, in an interview with the television channel Al Jazeera, Ms. Kadeer displayed photographs from an unrelated June 26 incident in Hubei province purporting to show heavy-handedness of Chinese policing in Urumqi. In the interview, Ms. Kadeer also showed a picture from a car accident in Zhejiang province claiming it showed street violence in Urumqi.

The Chinese government has said it had “strong evidence” to show Ms. Kadeer used a June 26 incident of racial violence between Uighurs and Hans in Guangdong province to organise a mass riot in Urumqi, although it has revealed nothing more than a phone-call Ms. Kadeer made to her brother a day before the riot, predicting “something big would happen.” Ms. Kadeer has denied having any role in the incidents, saying it was “a reaction to China’s repressive policies” in the region.

But, as much as the Chinese government has sought to portray a picture of stability in Xinjiang, ethnic unrest is not new to the region.

Xinjiang has seen intermittent tension between Hans and native Uighurs, who are a minority in China but the largest ethnic group in the region, though nothing of the scale of the events of last week.

Some Uighurs say the increasing presence of Hans in the region, which has steadily increased ever since the Chinese government launched a “Go West” policy to modernise Xinjiang, has limited employment opportunities for locals and is one reason behind the unrest.

Eyewitness: tensions high on the streets of Urumqi

But in the Muslim-majority province of Xinjiang the brittle fa├žade of unity cracked for all the world to see.

Two days after 156 people were killed in a vicious outbreak of ethnic mob violence, the streets of the ancient Silk Road city of Urumqi hung thick with tear gas and poisonous rumours as two rival communities called openly for each other's blood.

On one side the Muslim Uighurs, the historic Turkic-origin people of China's far West, who claim that for the last 60 years they have suffered discrimination and oppression under by Beijing's heavy-handed rule.

On the other, the majority Han Chinese population who have migrated to Xinjiang as part of Beijing's policy of 'developing the West' and yesterday were openly despising their Uighur fellow-citizens as 'murderers', 'terrorists' and 'spongers'.

"Kill the Uighurs! Kill all Uighurs!" chanted a crowd of more than ten thousand Han that surged back and forth through the streets armed with any weapons that came to hand: there were claw-hammers and wrenches; axes and scaffolding poles; snooker cues and baseball bats.

Women and young boys were among the throng demanding vengeance for the deaths and injuries they say were inflicted on hundreds of Han people on Sunday night.

"We can't live like this any more, we lock our doors at night and live in fear now," said a thickset Han woman holding a length of steel pipe, "the Uighurs will learn now that the Han people can also join forces. They must suffer too."

As she spoke, the streets were shaken by the explosion of tear gas grenades as police tried to prevent the crowd from storming a nearby Mosque, sending them running in the opposite direction, clanking like a medieval army as they dragged their homespun weapons after them.

"Didn't you hear, these Uighurs they chopped the heads off a hundred Han and left their bodies in the streets," volunteered a man wielding a table leg, "They killed even the small children, they are barbarians and the government must act to crush them now." Police and senior officials moved in to try and calm the crowd who demanded harsh punishment for Uighur rioters. The local Party-secretary, Li Zhi, risked his dignity by standing on the roof of a police car with a megaphone beseeching the crowd to go home.

"Punish the Uighurs! Punish the Uighurs!," the crowd chanted. "We will punish them harshly, now please go home" replied Mr Li, joining his hands in the Chinese symbol of a humble request. By early evening most had obeyed.

Although the authorities have declined to breakdown the dead on ethnic lines, reports of casualty lists from some hospitals and a gathering amount of eyewitness testimony suggest that many of the victims of Sunday's violence were indeed Han.

Yao Chengqing, a 42-year-old blanket shop owner from a mixed area of Urumqi was still swathed in bandages when he spoke to The Daily Telegraph, his shirt collar caked in now-brown blood that had spilt from a gash to the head.

"I went to pick up my wife from work on Sunday night at about 10.30pm and we were attacked by ten Uighurs," he said. "We never even spoke a word to them; they just attacked, beating us and screaming 'We hate the Han, we want to kill the Han'."

Mr Yao, who moved to Urumqi from the south western city of Chongqing ten years ago, added: "My wife is lying in hospital with 40 stitches and is blinded in one eye. She is too frightened to live here any more. I never thought I would see this day." However on the other side of this divided city, another story was being told that sought to explain the deep well of Uighur anger and resentment that appears to have found such brutal expression last Sunday night.

It began almost two weeks ago with reports that a Han Chinese mob had beaten a group of Uighur toy factory workers in the southern province of Guangdong and, crucially, had been allowed to get away with it.

In the Sai Ma Chang (Racetrack) District this was taken as another example of institutionalised Han favouritism against the Uighurs and soon the internet rumour mill was turning fact into fiction, feeding latent anger which is never far from the surface in Xinjiang.

"Didn't you hear? There were 4,000 Han people who chopped the heads off 600 Uighurs and then threw their body parts in the dustbin," said Gu Li, a 19-year-old student. "I heard there were videos on the internet. It's true." It is not, but the damage has already been done and now it seems that it will take long time for the wounds of Sunday's communal violence to heal.

On Monday night, Chinese police entered the Sai Ma Chang shanty and rounded up 100 suspects, bursting through doors and pulling men and boys from their beds, according to the Uighur women who took to the streets to protest yesterday.

They emerged from the dirty backstreets, wailing and beating their breasts, many clutching grubby-faced children dressed in the cheap clothes and holding up the identity cards of their arrested husbands, fathers and brothers.

Visibly poorer than the Han demonstrators roaming the other side of the city, the women in their headscarves swore vengeance on the ranks of police that quickly confronted them, throwing their shoes (a gross insult in Islam) and chanting "Release our men! Release our men!"

"They took my brother and he is only 15 years old," screamed Guli Nazar, 16, over the police sirens. "He did nothing and they still took him. We don't know what they are doing to our men, but we are afraid we will never see them again."

Obama rejects 2nd stimulus: Give recovery time

WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama on Saturday dismissed the idea that the United States might need a second stimulus to jolt the economy out of recession and urged Americans to be patient with his economic recovery plan.

Faced with rising unemployment numbers and criticism from Republicans who have already labeled the $787 billion stimulus a failure, Obama used his weekly radio and Internet address to remind voters that reversing job losses takes time.

He criticized Republicans for opposing the stimulus but offering few alternatives to the worst recession since the Great Depression. And he rejected talk of a second stimulus, an idea that has been discussed by Democrats and even famed investor Warren Buffett.

"We must let it work the way it's supposed to, with the understanding that in any recession, unemployment tends to recover more slowly than other measures of economic activity," Obama, who is visiting Ghana on Saturday, said in his recorded message.

The stimulus included $288 billion in tax cuts, dramatic increases in Medicaid spending, about $48 billion in highway and bridge construction and billions more to boost energy efficiency, shore up state budgets and improve schools.

The plan "was not designed to work in four months," Obama said. "It was designed to work over two years."

Since Obama signed the stimulus into law, the economy has lost more than 2 million jobs and the unemployment rate has climbed higher than the White House predicted it would have ever reached without the stimulus.

Some companies say stimulus money helped avoid layoffs. Independent government auditors found that stimulus aid to states helped keep teachers off unemployment lines. But overall job numbers continue to suffer.

Republicans have seized on this opportunity to criticize the president, but they have struggled to find their collective voice. At a news conference Friday, Republican lawmakers criticized the White House for spending so much, while simultaneously saying the administration wasn't spending it fast enough.

With the Obama administration now pushing for a costly overhaul of the nation's health care system, Republicans are casting Democrats as liberals on a shopping spree. In the Republicans' weekly address Saturday, Rep. Eric Cantor, the House of Representatives Republican whip, accused the Democratic-controlled Congress of reckless spending and careless borrowing.

Though the Republican stimulus proposal this January had its own deficit-pushing price tag of $478 billion, Cantor and Republicans are trying to make their case against Obama as one of fiscal restraint.

"For the stimulus alone, Washington borrowed nearly $10,000 from every American household," Cantor said. "Let me ask you: Do you feel $10,000 richer today?"

In his speech, Obama twice referred to "cleaning up the wreckage" of a recession that began on President George W. Bush's watch. But with Obama's poll numbers slipping on economic issues, Republicans want to lay the economy at the president's feet.

"This is now President Obama's economy," Cantor said.

President Urges Public Patience on Economy

WASHINGTON — President Obama is stepping up efforts to maintain public support for his agenda as rising unemployment presents him with the biggest test of his political strength since taking office.

Faced with an economic downturn that has proved deeper than the White House initially projected, Mr. Obama asked Americans on Saturday to remain patient, arguing that his $787 billion stimulus plan had saved the economy from collapse and put it on a gradual course to recovery.

“As a result of the swift and aggressive action we took in the first few months of this year, we’ve been able to pull our financial system and our economy back from the brink,” he said, deflecting calls for a new round of stimulus spending and saying that his plan was intended to work not in a few months but over two years.

Facing an array of challenges on Capitol Hill and concern about the huge budget deficit, he cast his main legislative initiatives, starting with his call for overhauling the health care system, as part of a long-term plan to rebuild the economy on a sounder foundation.

Mr. Obama returns to Washington on Sunday from a weeklong trip abroad at a time when Democrats have grown increasingly jittery about the economy and the political risks of the president’s ambitious agenda on health care, energy and climate change, financial regulation and other issues.

Aides said Mr. Obama’s remarks on Saturday, delivered in his weekly radio and video address, were intended to help regain control of the debate. He will follow up with speeches in Michigan and New York in the coming week, and possibly a prime-time news conference.

Behind the scenes, the White House is working to calm nervous lawmakers. Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, urged House Democrats in a private meeting earlier in the week to take note of polls showing that Democrats were in much stronger shape than Republicans on the issues of taxes and economy.

Mr. Emanuel assured them, according to those attending, that the White House “has their back” as they are being asked to take tough votes.

“We have to fly through a little turbulence,” said David Axelrod, one of Mr. Obama’s senior advisers. “But the important thing is to keep going, understand where you are headed and not lose heart in the middle of the journey.”

Still, the shifting environment threatens to make it harder for Mr. Obama to rustle up votes from nervous Democrats who, unlike Mr. Obama, have to run for re-election next year. Some polls have found a slight softening in support for Mr. Obama and his economic proposals nationally and, potentially more worrisome for Democrats, erosion in battleground states including Ohio. “It makes everything a little harder,” said Senator Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat who will be on the ballot next year.

Representative Jason Altmire, Democrat of Pennsylvania, said: “Everyone is concerned — you want it to be better. I think everyone realizes this was a long-term process. We are digging out of a deep hole.”

And Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, the No. 3 ranking Democrat, said that the complications from persistent weakness in the economy were “probably the most serious challenge we as Democrats face.”

Republicans said they sensed a new vulnerability in Mr. Obama. They have been visibly energized as they argue that his stimulus plan was costly and ineffective and that his health care plan will mean tax increases and more government bureaucracy.

“While the president’s personal numbers are still good, his policies, particularly the spending and the rising debt, are scaring people,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Mr. Cornyn said he believed that any patience the public had with the Obama economic approach was wearing thin and that Democrats would have difficulty continuing to blame the Bush administration for economic troubles.

“Time’s up on that one,” he said.

From the moment he took the presidency, Mr. Obama has warned that it could take years to get the economy back on track, and most polls showed that Americans were prepared to give him time.

The worsening economy could test just how much time Americans are willing to give him, particularly if the unemployment rate, now 9.5 percent, the highest since 1983, breaks 10 percent. Most economists anticipate that the unemployment rate will reach double digits this year.

And some politically critical states have already reported that unemployment has broken 10 percent. Ohio hit 10.8 percent in May. Florida, Indiana and Michigan are already well above that threshold while other states are approaching it. That could make it much more difficult to convince conservative Democrats in those states, already worried about challenges from Republicans next year, to cast votes for legislation like the health care or climate-change bill, particularly if these measures include some form of tax increases.

In one sign of this, three of the five House Democrats from Indiana, which reported an unemployment rate of 10.6 percent in May, voted against the climate-change measure backed by the White House when it passed by a narrow margin on the House floor last month.

House leaders signaled on Friday night that they would seek a vote on raising taxes by $550 billion over 10 years on the wealthiest Americans to help pay for the health care overhaul, a move that could put many Democrats in competitive districts in a difficult position.

A slow economic recovery would mean a further downturn in government revenues, which in turn could increase the size of the deficit as Mr. Obama is pushing for more spending. Historically, the deficit has been a potent issue with independent voters in particular, and it is already projected to remain at record levels for years to come.

In an interview, Mr. Emanuel criticized Republicans for assailing the stimulus package and said voters understood the depth of the problem and how much time it would take to turn around.

“I think the public knows three things: We inherited a total mess; we’re working hard on it; and we’re not going to get out of it overnight,” he said. “Here’s the deal: The key to what this year is about is rescuing the economy from falling off the cliff and trying to put in place the building blocks of recovery.”

Still, Mr. Obama’s aides acknowledged that they had only limited time, and that lawmakers might have less patience than voters. As a rule, voters’ views of the state of the economy tend to become cemented six months before Election Day.

“Nervousness is the natural state of politicians,” Mr. Axelrod said. “But the truth is on all of this stuff, the real risk is doing nothing. “

Democrats said they did not relish the prospect of heading out to face voters if things have not begun turning around.

“People are mad, angry,” said Representative Allen Boyd, a moderate Florida Democrat. “When you have times like that, everybody gets in a foul mood. It is rough for an elected official to run in that kind of environment.”

Obama Ends Ghana Visit With Trip to Former Slave Center

U.S. President Barack Obama has wrapped up his visit to the West African nation of Ghana with a tour of a former slave center from which thousands of Africans once were shipped off to America.

The president and his family on Saturday toured Cape Coast Castle, an ocean-front fortress that was converted to the slave trade by the British in the 17th century.

Speaking to reporters after the visit, Mr. Obama said the tour reminded him of a visit to a German World War II concentration camp. He said both experiences reminded him of man's capacity for evil. He said it was particularly important for his daughters to see the slave center and witness how history can take cruel turns.

Earlier Saturday, President Obama outlined his administration's policy for Africa during a speech in Accra to Ghana's parliament.

Mr. Obama's visit to Ghana was his last scheduled stop on a nearly week-long overseas trip.

In his speech to Ghana's parliament, Mr. Obama said democracy, opportunity, health and the resolution of conflict are the keys to the future of Africa and the developing world.

The president said his administration has committed $63 billion for health initiatives in Africa to fight malaria, polio, tuberculosis and AIDS.

The president also had strong words about conflict on the continent, calling it the millstone around Africa's neck. He said opposing someone who belongs to a different tribe or who worships a different prophet has no place in the 21st century.

Repeating a theme he struck earlier, he said Africa is not a world apart, but is a fundamental part of an interconnected world.

Mr. Obama's landmark visit to Ghana is his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa since becoming the first African-American president. He said he chose Ghana because of its "functioning democracy" and its president, John Atta Mills, who Mr. Obama said is "serious about reducing corruption."

The U.S. president's late father was from Kenya.

UN Gaza inquiry wraps up hearings

A UN war crimes investigator has said testimonies about the recent conflict in Gaza have been "difficult to hear" as four days of public hearings ended.

Richard Goldstone said his four member team had been shaken by the extent of the destruction in Gaza.

Witnesses from Gaza, Israel and the West Bank gave testimony in public hearings in Gaza and Geneva.

Israel has refused to co-operate, accusing the UN Human Rights Council of bias against it.

The investigation is looking into whether Israel and Hamas committed war crimes during Israel's three-week operation in Gaza in December and January.

The Human Rights Council has been accused of singling out Israel unfairly, although Mr Goldstone, who is Jewish, is a respected South African war crimes prosecutor.

Israel did not provide visas for the investigators to visit the south of Israel, which has suffered years of Palestinian rocket fire, or the West Bank, and the team entered Gaza from Egypt.

In two days of hearings last weeks, Gaza residents described harrowing stories of bereavement and injury during the Israeli operation.

And on Monday and Tuesday, residents of southern Israel, weapons experts, Palestinian lawyers and the father of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit gave testimony.

"The testimonies we have heard from victims and witnesses... have been very difficult to hear, but I believe it is important that we listen to these stories," Mr Goldstone told a news conference.

"Obviously on this mission, visiting Gaza was very important, not only to listen to people but to see the physical damage. That shook all of us, the extent of it," Goldstone said.

Previous investigations

It is the first time a UN fact-finding mission has held such public hearings.

Mr Goldstone said written questions would now be submitted to Israel and Hamas and the team was aiming to present its report in September.

Several investigations into alleged violations of international law during Israel's 22-day operation in Gaza, which ended on 18 January, have now reported back.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has requested more than $11m (£7m) compensation from Israel for damage to UN property in Gaza, after a limited UN inquiry accused Israel of targeting known civilian shelters and providing untrue statements to justify actions in which civilians were killed.

The report found Israel to blame in six out of nine incidents when death or injury were caused to people sheltering at UN property and UN buildings were damaged.

The Israeli military has concluded in an internal investigation that its troops fought lawfully, although errors did take place, such as the deaths of 21 people in a wrongly targeted house.

International human rights group Amnesty International accused both sides of committing war crimes in a detailed report on the conflict last week.

Palestinian rights groups say more than 1,400 Palestinians were killed during the January conflict. Israel puts the figure at 1,166.

Israeli and Palestinian estimates also differ on the numbers of civilian casualties.

According to the United Nations, the Israeli military campaign left more than 50,000 homes, 800 industrial properties and 200 schools damaged or destroyed, as well as 39 mosques and two churches.

Ten Israeli soldiers were killed, including four by friendly fire, and three Israel civilians died in rocket attacks by Palestinian militants.

Hamas nabs two Islamic Jihad men preparing to fire mortars at Israel

Two militants preparing to fire mortars into Israel were detained Saturday by interior security officials of the Islamic Hamas movement, reported a group to which the militants claim membership.

The statement, from the Saraya al-Quds Brigades, the armed wing of Islamic Jihad, announced the arrest of their members Saturday, reporting that the two men had been arrested as they engaged an Israel Defense Forces unit along the border of Israel and the eastern Gaza Strip.

Hamas, which has held de facto control of the Gaza Strip since June 2007, has stopped rocket attacks on Israel, in an unofficial, unannounced and fragile ceasefire with Israel that was reached January 18 at the end of the last Israeli military offensive into Gaza.

Since the end of the Israeli military offensive in Gaza, Hamas has arrested several militants from other factions trying to launch homemade rockets from Gaza at southern Israel.

The group added one of the two men is wanted by Israel and had been previously injured in an Israel Air Force attack on Islamic Jihad militants several months ago. The other is a brother of a suicide bomber who was killed near the Gaza-Israel border in 2004.

Egypt is mediating a long-term truce between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip and working to finalize a prisoners' swap with the Islamic movement in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been in captivity in Gaza since June 2006.

Four Palestinians wounded in smuggling tunnel collapse

Four Palestinian workers were wounded on Saturday when a tunnel they were building to smuggle goods across the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip collapsed, Palestinian medics said.

The wounded were being treated for suffocation and other injuries at Rafah's Abu Yusef al-Najjar hospital. Two were in stable condition, medics said, adding that rescue crews were still scouring the area, fearing that others might still be trapped.

The Hamas-controlled Gaza Interior Ministry said that Egyptian security forces had in recent days redoubled their efforts to find and destroy smuggling tunnels across the border that bisects the town of Rafah, and that they had found and destroyed "a number of tunnels."

Egypt has been under consistent international pressure, particularly from the United States and Israel, to do more to stop the smuggling of weapons and other goods into the Gaza Strip since the blockade of the territory began in 2007

Brother Barack Admonishes - and Encourages - Africa

Speaking to Africans with the intimacy of a brother, and citing the heritage he shared with them, President Barack Obama of the United States delivered an uncompromising message to the continent on Saturday.

Speaking from Ghana's democratically-elected Parliament, months after the ruling party was dislodged – and accepted defeat – by the narrowest of margins, Obama said much of the hope promised by Africa's liberation has yet to be fulfilled.

Then came the jab: "But the West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade, or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants."

He followed up with personalized testimony, founded on an earlier statement about his grandfather's experience as an adult man of being called "boy" by the British: "In my father's life, it was partly tribalism and patronage in an independent Kenya that for a long stretch derailed his career, and we know that this kind of corruption is a daily fact of life for far too many."

Returning to the same theme a few minutes later, he agreed that "each nation gives life to democracy in its own way, and in line with its own traditions."

Then came an incentive: "But history offers a clear verdict: governments that respect the will of their own people are more prosperous, more stable, and more successful than governments that do not."

And another warning: "This is about more than holding elections – it's also about what happens between them. Repression takes many forms, and too many nations are plagued by problems that condemn their people to poverty."

Followed by a rain of sharp cautions:

"No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves, or police can be bought off by drug traffickers.

"No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top, or the head of the Port Authority is corrupt.

"No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery.

And, finally, a challenge:

"That is not democracy, that is tyranny, and now is the time for it to end."

But the tough sound bites, which judging by // the response AllAfrica received from its readers in the days leading up to the speech would have been music to their ears, were interlaced with warm endorsements of what Obama called the "considerable progress in parts of Africa," creating a message of fraternal encouragement in the whole.

Returning to the era of liberation, he said that "just as it is important to emerge from the control of another nation, it is even more important to build one's own." Now was the time to do this, he suggested, "a new moment of promise."

But now it will not be "giants like [Kwame] Nkrumah and [Jomo] Kenyatta" who will determine the future. It will be all Africans: "Above all, it will be the young people – brimming with talent and energy and hope – who can claim the future that so many in my father's generation never found."

Laying the ground for what he said the United States believed necessary to build the nations of Africa, he began with what he called a fundamental truth: "Development depends upon good governance."

Followed by a gentler admonition: "That is the ingredient which has been missing in far too many places, for far too long." Then Brother Barack again, with advice: "That is the change that can unlock Africa's potential. And that is a responsibility that can only be met by Africans."

History was not on the side of "those who use coups or change constitutions to stay in power," he said. It was with people "taking control of their destiny, and making change from the bottom up.

"We saw it in Kenya, where civil society and business came together to help stop post-election violence.

"We saw it in South Africa, where over three quarters of the country voted in the recent election – the fourth since the end of apartheid.

"We saw it in Zimbabwe, where the Election Support Network braved brutal repression to stand up for the principle that a person's vote is their sacred right."

But the United States had responsibilities too. As AllAfrica's Charles Cobb, Jr. pointed out in analyzing the speech for CNN, Obama didn't offer much in practical terms. For example, despite pledging to make it easier for Africans to grow the food it needs and export it, there was no plan offered for the U.S. to abandon the protection of its farmers, which prevents Africans from reaping the benefits of the free trade the West preaches.

But the president did suggest that "wealthy nations must open our doors to goods and services from Africa in a meaningful way."

Repeating his theme from G8 Summit in Rome earlier in the week, he said the commitment of the U.S. "must be measured by more than just the dollars we spend" – it should, instead, by judged by "whether we are partners in building the capacity for transformational change."

To that end, he pledged to help good governance initiatives, to isolate those who pay bribes and to cut payments "that go to Western consultants and administration."

Search for Han Chinese sister whose family were butchered by Uighurs

What was once a grocery shop is now a blackened mess. Two boys in shorts and singlets play in the rubble but the usual occupants are absent. Five days ago a Han Chinese family was butchered in this small shop — victims of the Uighurs who rampaged through Urumqi.

Yu Dongzhi described how he clawed through the smoking ruins of the store to search for the family who lived there. He hoped to find his sister, Yu Xinli; her husband, Zhang Mingying; their 13-year-old son; her elderly mother-in-law; and a nephew aged 27.

The police helped him to dig among sacks of flour and bottles of rice wine melted by the heat of the blaze.

He found no survivors, only four bodies. He has yet to discover the fate of his sister.

Mr Yu is a heavily built man in his fifties and more than 6ft, but he almost weeps with despair. “I just hope I can find my sister in an intensive care unit of one of the hospitals. But so far, nothing.”

He has checked the mortuaries and photo galleries of unclaimed bodies held by the police, but his sister was not among them.

He has been refused access to the intensive care units. “I don’t say that I want to go in to disturb these very sick people, but why can’t they show us photographs of the injured? At least then I could find my sister,” he said.

Mr Yu cannot bear to think that she may have been dragged away by the rioters and murdered.

Just coping with the deaths of his sister’s family has almost overwhelmed him. The bodies were among the corpses whose pictures have been carried in local newspapers. So shocking was the family tragedy that one newspaper carried a special report on it, Police have confirmed the killings.

As The Times stood outside what is left of No 447 Zhongwan Street, a Han neighbour approached. She had watched the killings from her home in an apartment block overlooking the store.

“We saw hundreds of Uighurs running down the street on the afternoon of July 5. About ten suddenly rushed into the store. They began to hit the people inside, even the old mother, with bricks and stones. They tried to run outside. Then they were dragged back inside.

“There were terrible screams. Just wordless screams. But then very quickly they fell silent.”

She said that the son tried to hide in a chicken coop but was dragged out and his head was cut off. All the victims were left to burn inside the building. The corpses of the boy and his father were found beheaded. Mr Yu said: “Even the 84-year-old mother was stoned and then burnt. It was terrible, terrible. So cruel.”

Mr Yu made his way yesterday to a temporary emergency centre in an Urumqi hotel. At some desks clerks helped Han and Uighurs to process requests for compensation for damaged cars or destroyed businesses.

In a corner, two women waited at a desk for families seeking missing loved ones or reporting the deaths of relatives. This was where Mr Yu hoped to find help in the hunt for his sister. Officials were unable to explain what he could do next.

He sat in the hotel room-turned-office surrounded by relatives, just waiting. “I still have to keep up my hopes,” he said.

Mr Yu is too busy looking for his sister to organise the funerals for her family. That painful task will come next.

More than a decade ago his brother-in-law moved from central Henan province to run a successful business in a district with a high proportion of ethnic Uighur residents. “Perhaps they were jealous of his success. They clearly targeted the family. It looked as if they had decided in advance to pick on my sister. The police are pursuing the case and they have made some arrests,” said Mr Yu.

Nearby, a Uighur family run a small restaurant. The man shrugged when asked about the family who only a week ago ran a thriving business. He refused to talk about his late Han neighbours.

Most of Xinjiang dead 'Chinese'

Some three-quarters of the victims of the violence in China's western Xinjiang region were ethnic Han Chinese, the official death toll shows.

Of 184 people known to have died, 137 were Han Chinese, 46 were from the indigenous Uighur community and one was an ethnic Hui, local officials said.

Beijing flooded the regional capital Urumqi with security forces to stem the violence which erupted last Sunday.

Correspondents say some Uighurs believe their own death toll was much higher.

"I've heard that more than 100 Uighurs have died but nobody wants to talk about it in public," one Uighur man in Urumqi who did not want to give his name told the Associated Press news agency.

Uighurs living in exile outside China have also disputed the Chinese figures. Rebiya Kadeer, the US-based head of the World Uighur Congress, said she believed about 500 people had died.

According to the Chinese death toll released by state media, 26 of the 137 Han Chinese victims were female, while all but one of the 45 Uighurs killed were male.

The single death recorded in the Hui community, which is similar to the Uighurs ethnically and religiously, was that of a male.