Chinese soldiers wearing riot gear patrol the streets of Urumqi, Xinjiang on July 6, 2009.

(New York) - The Chinese government should exercise maximum restraint in the face of unrest and violence on July 5 in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, Human Rights Watch said today. China should allow the United Nations to conduct an independent investigation into the events.

Chinese state media have so far reported that at least 140 people were killed and 816 injured when protesters clashed with the police. These reports stated that protesters attacked passers-by and set vehicles and shops on fire. Early footage of the protest, circulated on the internet on July 5, showed protesters peacefully marching through the streets. Several accounts indicate that the demonstration started as a peaceful march to protest an incident in which two Uighur workers were killed and several injured in a clash with Chinese workers in Southern China. However, none of these reports has been confirmed by independent observers.

"It is unclear what happened in Urumqi, but what is clear is that the government needs to allow an independent investigation if its version of events is to have any credibility in Xinjiang or internationally," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "China still hasn't allowed an independent investigation into last year's violence in Tibet, which has left a huge cloud over the government and its version of events there. It should not make the same mistake this time in Xinjiang."

Human Rights Watch said it was unlikely that the Chinese government would provide an objective account of the protests and of the actions of the security forces given its history of covering up state abuses.

"State media have already accused exile Uighur groups of organizing the violence, just as it blamed the Dalai Lama for last year's violence in Tibet," said Richardson. "In both cases no evidence was produced to support the claims."

Human Rights Watch expressed deep concern about the fate of the several hundred protesters who have been arrested, according to state media, and urged the government to account for every detainee. Previous incidents of unrest in Xinjiang, as well as in the aftermath of the 2008 mass protests in Tibet, led to hundreds of unaccounted-for detentions, summary trials without the benefit of due process, and reports of torture and ill-treatment.

In recent years, security forces in Xinjiang have systematically conflated peaceful dissent with violent activities, and manipulated the threat of terrorism to justify systemic human rights violations and curbs on religious and cultural expression.

Earlier this year, the Chinese government extended an invitation to the new United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay. Human Rights Watch urged her to visit China at her earliest convenience and to specifically request to travel to Xinjiang. In the meantime, Pillay should offer to send a team from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to determine what happened in Urumqi.

In responding to protests, China should respect universal norms on proportionate use of force and refraining from the use of deadly force except where necessary to protect life, such as those laid out in the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials.

"Whoever started the violence, lowering ethnic tensions in the region requires the government to constructively address Uighurs' grievances - not exacerbate them," said Richardson. "It's time for the government to allow the United Nations to impartially examine and publicly report on what happened before, during, and after the protests."