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On the scene: Urumqi under curfew

  • Story Highlights
  • Police blockades on the street, dusk-to-dawn curfew in place after ethnic unrest
  • Uyghur protests Sunday was China's worst ethnic violence in decades
  • Eyewitnesses report protesters smashing cars, throwing rocks, clashing with police
  • City has veneer of normality; most people able to go about business unimpeded
By Jaime FlorCruz
CNN Beijing Bureau Chief
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URUMQI, China (CNN) -- We arrived in Urumqi late Monday night from Beijing. It was a scramble to get a taxi from the airport because there were many passengers and fewer taxi operators than usual. The driver of the original taxi we'd booked could not come out of the city, he said, because many of the areas were blockaded.

People walk past burned-out cars and buses in a street in Urumqi on Monday.

Ethnic Uyghur women grab the arm of a policeman as they protest in Urumqi on July 7.

There was a dusk-to-dawn curfew imposed soon after the unrest and that was indeed obvious Tuesday morning. We were out on the streets at 6 a.m. when it was still very dark.

Our taxi was stopped twice but we managed to talk our way through the police blockades; they checked our IDs and then waved us through.

We did see a few other people stopped and questioned but those who had ID documents were let through in the end. There was one man -- an Uyghur -- who was kept in a police car because he didn't have ID. We believe he was released soon afterwards.

As day broke, I saw a convoy of five or six army trucks moving out of the city. Still, many troops had stayed behind.

As we drove around the city center, including the area of the People's Square where the protests started Sunday afternoon, there were uniformed riot police positioned every 50 meters or so. They were wearing black uniforms and helmets.

According to eyewitnesses, hundreds of Uyghur men, women and children took to the streets Sunday chanting slogans.

One eyewitness, a Han Chinese taxi driver, told us they were calling for freedom and equality as well as for severe punishment for those who allegedly killed two Uyghurs in a brawl in southern Guangdong province in late June, apparently in a toy factory.

The taxi driver said he was near the area where the protesters were passing by. His taxi was hit by stones and he barely managed to escape unharmed. He said he saw the protesters near the Great Bazaar, which is a Uyghur-populated area where many Uyghurs have opened shops and stalls.

At the Great Bazaar he saw protesters -- mostly young men -- throwing rocks at police and at shop fronts. Then they also started to attack Han Chinese who happened to be in the vicinity, according to eyewitnesses. Video Watch more on violence in Xinjiang »

After the unrest, authorities ordered the bazaar closed for three days. When we visited Tuesday morning it was still closed and there were very few people around. Our driver told us it would normally be busy with people. iReport.com: Are you there? Share photos, video, commentary

Another eyewitness, an American we talked to on Sunday and Monday, said he saw protesters smashing cars, overturning them and clashing with the police. He also saw a Uyghur man kick a Han woman.

These scenes went on until late Sunday night when the American said he could still hear protesters being chased by police in the alleyway where he lived. Video Watch victims describe the riots in Urumqi »

As of Tuesday morning, official Chinese government figures report 156 dead and more than 800 people injured -- making Sunday's clashes the deadliest ethnic violence reported in China for decades. Authorities also say they have arrested more than 1,400 people.

We also drove by the vicinity of Xinjiang University, which again was a hot spot for Sunday's protests. There was a noticeable presence of what appeared to be armed police (two or three military buses, 50 officers in fatigue uniforms) at the intersections leading to the campus.

At the entrance to the university we saw scores of students apparently packing up and preparing to leave -- although the school year is almost finished.

I haven't really seen any of the soldiers wielding menacing weapons. It seems to me that they are trying to calibrate their response. I would describe it as a semi-lockdown now during daytime.

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It seems that most people are able to go about their daily activities. I haven't seen people accosted by the police except during the curfew hours. Once the sun comes up, it seems there is at least a veneer of normality on the streets of Urumqi.

But authorities are not taking any chances. The police and the army are on standby in case there is a recurrence of violence.

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