The headquarters of the World Uighur Congress (WUC) amounts to a couple of rooms, tucked in the attic of a 1960s-era block near Munich's central train station. More than 500 Uighurs live in the capital of the German state of Bavaria, making it the biggest such community in Europe. Asgar Can, the organization's vice president, sits between a German flag and a Uighur one, which resembles the Turkish banner, except it is blue instead of red.
"We assume that the situation in the Xinjiang province is far worse than television pictures suggest," he says. The World Uighur Congress maintains contact with Uighurs in their homeland, "our fellow countrymen who phone us with information are risking their lives," he says.
Dolkun Isa, WUC's general secretary, walks into the room, clutching a piece of paper. It contains the latest reports of the unrest in the giant province in Western China. The group now estimates that up to 800 Uighurs have died, Isa says, adding that he is unable to give a more precise number. Official Chinese figures claim that 150 people have been killed in the clashes between the Chinese and Muslim Uighurs.
Isa claims one attack took place on a medical school in Urumqi, the regional capital. He alleges that four Uighur students were stabbed and beheaded by Han Chinese, "their bodies were hung in the faculty entrance," Isa says, citing eyewitness reports. According to a separate report, 150 Uighurs died during an attack on workers in a tractor factory in the northwestern city.
WUC Vice President Can says Uighurs are too afraid to leave their homes -- they fear they might get killed outside on the streets. In the meantime, they are starving. In Urumqi, "corpses litter the street like bits of furniture," he says. Demonstrations are allegedly continuing in the cities of Kashgar, Aksu, Hotan and Karamay, and curfews have been imposed on the local populations. In many cities, water and electricity supplies have been cut, he says.
Chinese leaders are blaming the World Uighur Congress for the latest escalation. In particular the WUC's Washington-based president Rebiya Kadeer has become a scapegoat for the unrest. "Our initial findings indicate that the separatist World Uighur Congress under the leadership of Rebiya Kadeer has fuelled the violence," the Chinese state news agency Xinhua claims, citing information from the regional government. Can angrily rejects such claims. He is in close contact with Kadeer and spoke to her a night earlier. "She is stunned that she is being held responsible," he says.
Kadeer, in a recent guest editorial published in the Wall Street Journal, blamed the Chinese for the escalating violence. She also condemned violence by Uighurs and said Han Chinese and Uighurs need to "achieve a dialogue based on trust, mutual respect and equality." She urged the US to take on a key role, saying Washington should condemn the violence in the Chinese province and open up a consulate in Urumqi. That step, she argues, could calm tensions in the area.
For its part, China is taking a tough line on the conflict. The head of the Communist Party in the Xinjiang province, Li Zhi, has threatened that the government will execute those responsible for the latest violence, according to the Associated Press. The wire service reports that many people, mostly students, have already been arrested on suspicion of murder. Early Wednesday morning, the authorities imposed a curfew in Urumqi after thousands of Han Chinese took to the streets a day earlier, armed with sticks, knives and metal poles.
Authorities dropped thousands of flyers from helicopters above Urumqi and called for calm among the 2.3 million residents. Some citizens erected barricades to avert further street fights. "We just want to protect our homes, we don't want to attack anyone," says a spokesman for the Uighurs.
Chinese police swarmed Urumqi on Wednesday in a bid to contain the protests, which have endured for days. The arrests of a number of alleged Han Chinese leaders from among a 1,000-strong group of demonstrators sparked scenes of aggression. "Let them free, let them free," called the demonstrators. The presence of large numbers of security forces restored calm in the city center. Armored military personnel carriers patrolled the streets.
Along with Tibet, the Xinjiang province is one of the most politically volatile regions of China. Bordering on Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, it is strategically important -- with ample oil reserves and China's biggest supply of natural gas. It is so important that Chinese President Hu Jintao cancelled his plans to attend the G-8 summit in Italy due to the violence. German Chancellor Angela Merkel had reportedly wanted to speak to him about the regional unrest.
The World Uighur Congress says the province should be given the right of self-determination. "The people should decide," says Asgar Can. At the moment the conditions are not in place for that to happen. If his people do call for independence one day, he says, then they would establish a democratic system. Can says it could be modelled after the East Turkistan Republic that existed in the region between 1944 and 1949, when it became part of the People's Republic of China. He adds: "We have never had the intention of founding an Islamic country."
Can says he is also appealing to the German government to accept the remaining 13 Uighurs still being held in the US Guantanamo detention center.