A bloody clash involving ethnic Uighurs in western China's Xinjiang autonomous region has left at least 156 people dead, triggering an outcry from human-rights organizations and exiled Uighur groups. Uighur groups said the violence underscores Beijing's strict policies toward the Muslim minority.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon led the international call for restraint Monday after China announced that Sunday's protests spiraled into deadly violence.
Mr. Ban's spokeswoman, Michelle Montas, relayed his concerns to journalists in New York.
"Governments concerned also must exercise extreme care and take necessary measures to protect the lives and safety of the civilian population," he stressed.
Sophie Richardson, a China foreign policy expert with Human Rights Watch, said the world has a reason to be concerned.
"This may well be the largest incidence of political violence in China in 30 years," she said.
It is difficult to determine what exactly happened in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi. China tightly controls the media, and residents are reporting disruptions in their phone and Internet services.
A Washington-based spokesperson for the World Uyghur Congress, Alim Seytoff, said Uighur students took to the streets to protest the killing of two Uighurs at a factory in Guangdong province last month. That violence erupted after a false rumor was spread accusing the Uighurs of rape.
Seytoff said Sunday's protest turned violent when Chinese forces began attacking and indiscriminately shooting Uighur demonstrators.
"We are horrified by the unjustified, excessive use of force by the Chinese authorities against unarmed Uighur civilian protesters," he said.
But the official Chinese news agency, Xinhua, accused the Uighurs of trying to sabotage the country. Xinhua also has accused Seytoff's group of instigating the unrest, a charge he denies.
U.S. State Department Spokesman Ian Kelly said the United States deeply regrets the loss of life in the Xinjiang rioting and is calling on all sides for calm and restraint.
Richardson said the unrest likely was in part a result of the Uighur's long-standing grievances with Chinese policies.
"The very repressive cultural, linguistic, educational, economic and religious constraints that they live under on a daily basis," she said.
Uighurs make up about half of the 20 million people living in Xinjiang, a vast, mountainous region that rests several-thousand kilometers west of Beijing. They are Muslim and speak a Turkic language - qualities that draw them closer in culture and custom to Central Asians than to the Chinese.
Seytoff said the Uighurs have suffered increasing harassment by the central government since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States stirred global alarm about Muslim extremists.
"And because of their unique difference, after 9-11, the Chinese government began to label the entire Uighur people as terrorist separatists and Islamic radicals and began to crackdown Uighurs because of the lack of interest and attention paid by the international community," he said.
The Uighurs said their feeling of discrimination has grown since millions of Han Chinese have moved to the area to take advantage of Beijing's efforts to narrow the wealth gap between the coastal cities and the western desert region.
Their grievances about economic, cultural, and religious discrimination by the Han are similar to the Buddhists in neighboring Tibet. Last year, widespread protests against Chinese rule in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, also turned deadly.
Richardson said she expects the Uighurs will face the same difficulties as Tibetans who took part in those protests.
"What I would expect to see are comparable problems with respect to due process. People being tried without any access to council even though there are not any charges against them. That we will not know what's happened to those arrested in the protests in the last few days for months," said Richardson.
Seytoff said like in Tibet, he also expects Chinese forces will be hunting down the protesters and their families..."and trying to arrest and trying to intimidate the entire Uighur population through this event," he added.
China's Xinhua news agency said hundreds of people have been arrested in Xinjiang, and 20,000 security forces are patrolling the area.