|The Uighur say Beijing's repression of their culture led to the outburst of violence [EPA]
The riots that rocked the city of Urumqi in China's northwestern Xinjiang region are the area's worst for more than a decade.
In the 1990s, Uighur insurgent groups staged several deadly bomb attacks across the region; in 2008, attacks on police and government targets in Xinjiang ended with more than two dozen deaths.
What makes these riots different, however, is the high number of causalities. Exile groups say violence erupted after police moved in on Sunday to break up a peaceful demonstration protesting against the killing of two Uighur migrant workers in southern China last month.
Many Uighurs - the Turkic-speaking Muslim ethnic minority of the region - and overseas scholars say the recent violence is rooted in deep-seated and long-standing resentment between the Uighur people and the Han Chinese majority, who account for 92 per cent of the population.
Andrew James Nathan, a political science professor at Columbia University in the US, says deteriorating relations between the Uighur and the Han are to blame for the latest riots.
"I don't know what triggered this specific event, but the underlying tension that broke out in this as well as previous events reflects the alienation of the Uighur residents from the kind of rule imposed by Beijing, which is insufficiently respectful of their culture, religion, identity, and interests," he says.
Ethnic tensions persist
The government, though, is clear about who is to blame – outside forces, in particular Rebiya Kadeer, the leader of the US-based World Uighur Congress (WUC).
|From her exile in the US, Kadeer denied any involvement in the unrest in Xinjiang [AFP]
"The unrest was a pre-emptive, organised, [and a] violent crime. It was instigated and directed from abroad, and carried out by outlaws in the country," a government spokesperson said.
Kadeer, a former political prisoner in China who now runs the WUC as a Uighur rights organisation, rejects the accusations.
"I did not organise any protests or call on the people to demonstrate," she says.
A young Uighur man, who has been living in Beijing for the past five years, agreed to an interview on the condition that he remain anonymous, saying he feared repercussions from the authorities.
He says Kadeer and the WUC could not have been behind the violence.
"Ever since I was born until now there has been this problem between Uighur and Han," he says.
"Han people don't treat us or our culture with any respect, and the key thing is that there are more and more Han coming to live in Xinjiang. And that means us Uighur people are losing our culture and we have less freedoms."
Relations are so bad, he says, that Han taxi drivers will not even pick him up on the streets of Urumqi.
Uighur children, he says, are barred from learning their own language in schools - from middle school onward studies are solely in Chinese.
"They don't allow us to teach our children about Islam in schools. They are not allowed to study religion until they are at least 18."
"They have taken away our language and our culture. Han people treat us like dirt."
Tensions had been reaching boiling point in the past week or so after the deaths of the two Uighur migrant workers. They were killed in a fight in a toy factory in Guangdong province following a rumour that six Uighur men had raped two Han Chinese women.
While Chinese media is acknowledging the link between the Urumqi riots and the tragic killings in Guangdong, it is insisting that outside forces used the incident "in the name of revenge" to "sow the seeds of racial and religious hatred in Xinjiang".
Al Jazeera approached several Chinese scholars for comment on the riots in Xinjiang but they declined to be interviewed, saying they do not have permission to discuss the issue with journalists.
The killings were definitely the spark for this latest violence, says Dru Gladney, a professor of anthropology and Xinjiang specialist at Pomona College in California.
"I think it is connected [with the Guangdong killings] at least that's what I've been told by Uighurs I have spoken to," Gladney says, adding that this time because the violence took place in Urumqi it is likely the protest is rooted in anger at Han treatment rather than any religious-based fight for independence.
"I think it was significant that it took place in Urumqi because Uighurs there only make up about 10 per cent of the population," he explains by phone.
"Most protests have historically been outside Urumqi, in rural areas in the south or in Yili in the north … There are more worker solidarity issues [in Urumqi] - a lot of the Uighur intellectuals and more secular nationalist Uighurs are based in urban areas like Urumqi whereas more religious activists are in the countryside and places like Kashgar."
Blaming insurgent groups
Beijing says the insurgent groups are fighting for independence and may be connected to al-Qaeda, but for the average Uighur, independence seems an unattainable dream.
The young Uighur man in Beijing says his people are powerless and it is useless pursuing notions of independence.
"China has caught and suppressed our culture and religion. They have destroyed our history and our ancient buildings in Kashgar. And now it's all gone."
Meanwhile, in Urumqi, the city is under lock-down, according to western media. Curfews have been imposed and mobile phone and Internet links cut, much as authorities crushed anti-government riots in Tibet last year.
Despite the crackdown, the chances are, say scholars, that this is not the end of it.
"Protests in Xinjiang have been increasing slowly for many years and I think the prospect is that they will continue to occur, both this year and in future years," says Nathan.
The government is particularly on edge this year because of celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on October 1.
|Some analysts hope the level of violence will convince Beijing to heal rifts with the Uighur
While officially, the government insists this problem is caused by exile separatists and local "outlaws", Gladney is hopeful that the scale of the violence will convince Beijing that the solution lies less in an authoritarian approach and more in trying to heal the rifts between the ethnic groups.
"I think some of us are hoping that it may cause them to rethink their strike hard tactics that they've used up until now, but certainly not until things settle down," he says. "Clearly with this level of [violence] it should cause them to really rethink that."
How do the local people see an eventual solution to the ethnic strife?
The Uighur man strokes his beard and laughs nervously.
"I don't know how to solve this problem," he says. "I wish I was in Xinjiang now but I'm not there. I feel helpless."