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China Imposes Martial Law in Area Hit by Ethnic Clash

Chinese authorities have imposed martial law on parts of China's central Henan province after deadly clashes between China's ethnic Han majority and members of the Muslim Hui minority.

It remains unclear what sparked the fighting late last week in the town in Henan Province, but several witnesses say it started amid a dispute over a traffic accident involving Han Chinese and Hui Muslims. Witnesses in the town of Langchenggang say a number of people were killed when the two ethnic groups battled each other with sticks and set buildings on fire.

The fighting spread quickly to nearby villages, prompting local authorities to call in the People's Armed Police, who declared martial law, cordoned off the area, and banned news coverage of the incident. Residents on Monday said much of the area was calm as police patrolled the streets.

Ethnic fighting is nothing new in China, which has a 90 percent Han Chinese population but is home to dozens of ethnic groups that include an estimated 20 million Muslims.

Professor Dru Gladney at the University of Hawaii is an expert on Chinese ethnic relations who says China's leaders have become more concerned about clashes involving Muslims ever since the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001. He says this is one reason why the Chinese government moved so quickly and thoroughly to contain the latest violence and keep it from escalating into major strife.

"It's been very worried about the response of its Muslim population to world events," he said. "It's been very worried about terrorist threats and Muslim networks expanding in China and radical Islam."

Experts say there has been no visible evidence of any direct links between members of China's Muslim Hui population and outside Muslim extremist groups.

But Professor Gladney says officials have reason to be worried about what he says could be the public's changing perception of Muslims - an image he says is becoming increasingly distorted.

"Many Chinese today watching the events in the Middle East and Iraq have begun to perceive Muslims as a threat, or that Islam itself is a threat to social harmony or the fabric of Chinese society," he said. "The reality is much different. Muslims have cohabitated peacefully among Chinese populations for 1300 years."

On Monday, it was still not clear how many people had been killed or injured in the clashes. Journalists were not allowed in the area.