BEIJING - As many as 1,000 or more members of China's Muslim ethnic Uighur minority staged protests in the restive region of Xinjiang last week and a local government administration said some were carrying separatist flags.
The unrest in the western city of Hetian, also known as Khotan, came about a week after monk-led marches in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, devolved into a citywide anti-Chinese riot, and as sporadic protests erupted in other Tibetan populated areas.
It also follows what Chinese authorities say was a failed attempt by Xinjiang separatists to blow up a plane in mid-air on March 7, and coincides with China making security a top priority ahead of the Beijing Olympics in August that have become a lightning rod for human rights and other activists.
China blames the exiled Dalai Lama, whom it labels a separatist, for stirring up the Lhasa violence in which it says 19 people died. The Tibet government-in-exile says around 140 people died.
More than 1,000 demonstrators gathered in Hetian, which is populated mostly by Turkic-speaking ethnic Uighurs, on March 23-24, said Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress, an exile group based in Germany that seeks independence for the region.
Most were female and sought more religious freedom in the mostly Muslim region, he said. Some had also protested against young Uighur women being forced into labour elsewhere in China without legal guarantees.
The Web site of the Hetian city government, www.xjht.gov.cn, confirmed there had been a "disturbance", but blamed it on a unspecified supporters of what China calls the "Three Forces" -- ethnic separatism, religious extremism and terrorism.
"A tiny minority of 'Three Forces' elements tried to instigate the masses in the Hetian bazaar," the Web site said.
Some "held flags inciting separatism, gathered in the market and caused a ruckus, and planned to incite and dupe the masses into causing trouble and creating an effect", it said.
Police stopped the disturbance and were handling the "Three Forces elements" according to law, it added, without saying exactly how many people participated or were detained.
Raxit said about 500 people were held.
U.S. government-supported Radio Free Asia also reported a few hundred people were taken into custody after several hundred people gathered in Hetian and a nearby area to protest against the death in custody of a prominent Uighur jade trader and philanthropist.
The protesters also demanded an end to an official bid to ban head scarves and seek greater autonomy, the end of the use of torture and the release all political prisoners, it quoted sources as saying.
Xinjiang is home to 8 million Muslim Uighurs, many of whom resent the growing presence and economic grip of Han Chinese. The oil-rich region borders Pakistan and Afghanistan.
(Reporting by John Ruwitch and Guo Shipeng; Editing by Alex Richardson)