08/17/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Xinjiang Mosques Reopen For Friday Prayers

URUMQI, China (AP) - Mosques opened for worshippers in Urumqi on Friday, but shops nearby were forced to shut as security forces kept a tight grip on this far west city still reeling from ethnic riots earlier this month.

Just before prayers began at the White Mosque, Uighur police officers and riot police armed with rifles told owners of shops nearby to move their goods inside and close their metal shutters. A shopkeeper said he did not know why he was asked to close.

About 100 paramilitary police with wooden clubs took up positions opposite the mosque _ one of the most popular in the city _ as people were ordered not to loiter in front of the green-domed building flanked by minarets with blue trim.

As prayers began, a truck with a loudspeaker cruised slowly down the street in front of the mosque, blasting government slogans about social harmony that drowned out the imam's voice. Hundreds of worshippers filled up the mosque, and crowds spilled out onto the sidewalk.

Initially, police told an Associated Press reporter to leave the area, but a more senior officer said journalists could say unless there was a protest. If demonstrations erupted, reporters would be taken away for their own safety, the officer said.

Last week, a small protest erupted in front of the stores forced to shut Friday after prayers at the mosque. A large group of police quickly ended the protest, hauling away several of the participants.

Last Friday, which is the Muslim day of obligation, mosques were officially closed, but several, including the White Mosque, opened when crowds gathered outside.

Nearly two weeks after the ethnic riots that left 192 dead, Chinese authorities were keeping a tight lid on Urumqi (pronounced uh-ROOM-chee), including more aggressively blocking foreign media from working in the streets.

Authorities have been adamant that foreign photographers not shoot pictures of the thousands of security forces guarding the city. On Friday, police told three foreign photographers that they were not allowed to take photos of Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gers) or security forces and ordered them to leave the area.

The tense atmosphere follows the worst ethnic violence in the western region of Xinjiang in decades. The unrest began when a July 5 protest by Muslim Uighurs spiraled into violence against Han Chinese, the nation's ethnic majority.

Rioters roamed the streets, beating people, smashing windows and burning cars. In subsequent days, groups of Han Chinese launched revenge attacks.

The official Xinhua News Agency reported that 192 people died, 1,721 were wounded and 881 people were still in hospitals. A total of 331 shops and 627 vehicles were burned in the unrest.

Tensions have long simmered in Xinjiang, a sprawling oil-rich territory three times bigger than France. Uighurs, who number 9 million in Xinjiang, allege an influx of Han Chinese is making jobs more scarce and complain about government restrictions on their Muslim religion.

Han Chinese, many of whom were encouraged to emigrate to Xinjiang by the government, believe Uighurs should be grateful for the region's rapid economic development, which has brought schools, airports and oil wells to the rugged region.

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