Friday, September 25, 2009

Restaurant blast rattles Beijing

An explosion at a Beijing restaurant has raised tensions in a city which has already seen stabbings and the beating by police of foreign journalists ahead of National Day. The blast struck the Xinjiang Kashgar Delicacy City restaurant at around 9 am on Friday completely destroying the building and causing damage to nearby shops. Police immediately sealed off the street in the Xinjiekou district which is situated in the north west of Beijing. Large plumes of black smoke could be seen following the blast and within minutes fire services were on the scene. 

Little information was published on the state news agency website. A single line on the Chinese version of Xinhua read, "Beijing Xinjiekou an explosion occurred near a restaurant. Witnesses said injuries were reported." A further report attributed to Xinhua on the China Daily website elaborated, saying three employees and a number of passers-by were injured.

Maggie Rauch, an American who lives nearby, posted a number of pictures taken at the scene to Twitpic. The Twitpic website, which enables Twitter users to post photographs, was blocked soon after by Chinese censors. Websites such as YouTube, blogger, Twitter, Facebook and Picasa web have been blocked in the last few months in an attempt to stifle the flow of information in China. However many people are finding ways to circumvent the so-called Great Firewall of China. Today a new version of Freegate, a program that enables Internet users bi-pass the blocks was released, though some users described Internet access as being slow through the portal.

Security has been extremely tight across Beijing ahead of the October 1 celebrations, which will mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Peoples' Republic of China. Access to Tiananmen Square and surrounding areas has been shut off and police have fanned out across the capital to carry out security checks. Troops and masked gunmen belonging to the elite Snow Wolf Commando Unit have also taken up position around the capital at key buildings and intersections.

Police say the blast was caused bu gas cylinders. "According to the initial investigation, the explosion was an accident," a policewoman told Agence France Presse. Journalists trying to cover the incident were ushered away by police though some residents were briefly interviewed. Sun Jia, 43, said she was awakened by the explosion shortly before 9:00 am (01:00 GMT), and rushed from her home to see what had happened. "I looked and I saw that the building was all crumbled and there was some smoke. And I saw a young man with blood all over the side of his head and one side of his body. It looked like his ear had been badly injured," she told AFP. "All I heard was one loud boom," another resident told the news agency. 

Many were obviously shaken by the incident. "In all my years, I've never seen something so horrible," said a 40-year-old man who would only give his surname, Zhao. "I saw a body in the street and he wasn't moving." Zhao, who lives in an alley near the restaurant, said he rents three rooms to several people who worked at the restaurant and a branch not far away. "They're all good, hard-working people," he said, sitting outside his ramshackle house, which he shares with his boarders. "We've lived together for 10 years and we get along well. Clearly this was an accident."

Even if the explosion was an accident, the timing of the explosion, and the fact that the restaurant was run by members of China's Uighur minority, was not lost on residents in the area. One woman working at a nearby noodle shop referred to it as "a bad coincidence." Xinjiang, in the north-west of China has seen much unrest in recent months. Riots have left nearly 200 dead, according to official figures, and a series of syringe attacks have heightened tensions in the region.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China - sources: Xinhua / AFP / NYT / Shanghaiist
picture © Maggie Rauch

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