Top Muslim leader dies in China`s Xinjiang

Mahemuti, the mullah of the Hantenggeli Mosque, died from heart disease.

Beijing: Over 5,000 Muslims poured into the streets of the capital of western China`s restive Xinjiang region to mourn the death of a key religious figure amid a massive police presence, a mosque official said.

Mahemuti, the mullah of the Hantenggeli Mosque – also known as the Great South Gate Mosque -- died on Thursday leading to an outpouring of grief by Muslim followers in the regional capital Urumqi, a mosque official said.

"About 5,000 Muslim mourners came to the mosque on Thursday to mourn his passing," the official, who identified himself only as Gelimu, said on Sunday. Mahemuti died from heart disease, he said.

The mosque was at the centre of ethnic rioting between Xinjiang`s minority Uighurs and China`s Han majority in Urumqi in July 2009 that left nearly 200 people dead and 1,700 injured, according to official tolls.

Chinese authorities blamed the unrest on "separatists" but provided no evidence of any organised campaign. More than 25 people have either been executed or received the death penalty for their involvement in the violence, state media has said.

Gelimu said that Thursday`s mourning parade was peaceful and that the large police presence mainly aimed to regulate traffic as the body of the mullah was taken away for burial.

According to the Hong Kong-based Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, over 1,000 armed police implemented martial law in central Urumqi around the mosque following the mullah`s death.

Mahemuti, 74, had been a prominent Muslim religious leader for over 30 years and was well-known throughout Xinjiang, the centre said.

Police had stepped up surveillance on mourning activities throughout the region, the centre added, fearful that simmering ethnic tensions could spark renewed rioting.

The far-western Xinjiang region, where Uighurs have long seethed under Chinese rule, has experienced several violent bouts of unrest in recent years.

In August, seven people were killed when a man drove a vehicle loaded with explosives into a crowd in the outskirts of Aksu, a city near China`s border with Kyrgyzstan, officials said at the time.


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