Saturday, December 19, 2009
By BBC Bureau:
Nine out of 10 mothers questioned in a British Heart Foundation (BHF) survey misunderstood the nutrition information on children's foods.
The BHF says mothers believe claims such as "a source of calcium, iron and six vitamins" mean a product is likely to be healthy.
A "mish mash" of different food labelling styles is fuelling confusion among shoppers, it added.
But manufacturers insisted their nutritional labelling was clear.
The survey found that 76% of mothers questioned believed that "wholegrain" means the product is likely to be healthy.
However, the BHF said that - for example - Nestle's Honey Shreddies, which claim to be wholegrain and to "keep your heart healthy and maintain a healthy body", contain more sugar [13.6g] than a ring doughnut [9.2g] in an average serving.
Kellogg's Coco Pops cereal and milk bars are labelled as "a source of calcium, iron and six vitamins" and 63% of mothers in the survey thought they were healthy.
The BHF said that for every 100g they were higher in saturated fat and sugar than the average chocolate cake.
The Natural Confectionery Company Jelly Snakes which are made by Cadbury's contain more calories gram for gram than black treacle, the BHF said.
Single labelling scheme
Almost three in five respondents believed that the phrase "no artificial flavourings , no artificial colourings" indicated a healthy treat.
The questionnaire found that 84% of them wanted a single, front-of-pack food labelling scheme.
Peter Hollins, BHF chief executive, said: "Mums are having the wool pulled over their eyes by food manufacturers.
"Smoke and mirror tactics means that foods targeted at children and high in fat, salt and sugar are being disguised with partial health claims suggesting they are a healthy choice.
"Regularly eating these types of foods could have serious implications for kids' future health."
A single unified labelling system for food is needed because it the "mish mash" of the different systems serves only to confuse shoppers, he added.
"It's time for food companies to stop making excuses , support one system and ensure shoppers are given 'at a glance' information about the foods they're giving their kids."
A spokesman for the Natural Confectionery Company said: "All we claim is that the sweets contain no artificial colours and flavours - which is true - so we're not sure why this should confuse anybody.
"All nutritional information is clearly labelled on the bag."
And a spokesman for Kellogg's responded: "A Kellogg's Coco Pops Cereal and Milk bar actually contains less than two teaspoons of sugar per bar and has half the calories (84) and far less fat than a chocolate bar.
"Parents understand this because we give them the information they need, through our front-of-pack labelling, to make similar comparisons."
By BBC Bureau:
America's top military officer has voiced concern about an incursion by Iran into Iraq that ended with Iranian soldiers seizing an Iraqi oil well.
Admiral Mike Mullen said he had spoken to Iraq's defence minister, but it was for leaders in Tehran and Baghdad to resolve the dispute.
Officials from both countries have said they want a diplomatic solution.
The Iranian troops are now believed to have now left the Fakkah oil field, which is close to the Iranian border.
Similar incidents have happened before along the border, which has never been properly defined since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s - although relations between the two neighbours are now cordial.
'No military escalation'
The Iraqis said about a dozen Iranian soldiers had been involved in the incursion and that they had raised the Iranian flag over the oil field.
I worry a great deal about Iran's view of destabilising this region as well and specifically… focusing on an oil field
Adm Mike Mullen
According to General Ray Odierno, commander of US forces in Iraq, the Iranian forces had left the oil well as of Saturday morning, reports AP news agency.
"All of us are concerned about the influence of Iran," Adm Mullen told a news conference in Baghdad.
"I worry a great deal about Iran's view of destabilising this region as well and specifically… focusing on an oil field."
He continued: "But my understanding is this is sovereign Iraqi territory and is something for leaders in Iraq to resolve."
Earlier, Iran's armed forces apparently confirmed the incursion, in a statement quoted by Iran's Arabic-language Al-Alam satellite television.
"Our forces are on our own soil and, based on the known international borders, this well belongs to Iran," they said.
Oil prices rose on Friday amid reports about the commandeered well in Maysan province.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told Reuters news agency: "We call for calm and for a peaceful solution to this matter, far from any military escalation."
US forces are due to stay in Iraq until elections in March 2010, and then gradually pull out, with complete withdrawal scheduled by the end of 2011.
By BBC Bureau:
The Colombian government has announced it is building a new military base on its border with Venezuela and has activated six new airborne battalions.
Relations between the two nations are at a historic low with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez already telling his generals to prepare for war.
He moved 15,000 more troops up to the border, accusing Colombia and its ally, the US, of planning an attack.
A BBC correspondent says the potential for conflict is heightened.
Colombian Defence Minister Gabriel Silva announced the formation of a new base in La Guajira in the north, near the Venezuelan border.
At the same time, the Colombian army activated the new airborne battalions, which are equipped with US helicopters.
The helicopter fleet, made up mainly of Blackhawks, now numbers 120, making the Colombian Army Air Corps the best equipped and most experienced in Latin America, the BBC's Jeremy McDermott in Colombia says.
Preparing for war
President Chavez has criticised a pact announced last month allowing US troops to use several bases in Colombia.
Mr Silva said that the new base would have up to 1,000 soldiers.
It would, he added, also have a care facility for indigenous Wayuu people who live in the area.
Since Venezuelans were told by Mr Chavez to prepare for war and the Venezuelan army starting blowing up bridges that link the two nations, Colombia has been overhauling its defence strategy.
Until now this strategy has been geared almost exclusively to fighting the country's 45-year Marxist insurgency.
With the increasing build-up of military on both sides of the border, the potential for conflict is heightened, particularly when one considers 2,000 rebels in the border region prepared for a fight between the two nations, our correspondent says.
By Sebastian Usher
BBC Arab affairs editor
More than 6,000 people have been stopped by the police for offences on Dubai's beaches, records show.
Infractions range from ogling women, to kissing, to people swimming fully clothed or in their underwear.
Dubai's authorities have stepped up their policing of what they regard as offensive behaviour.
The Gulf emirate is popular with tourists and Western expats. But most of the people stopped are workers from developing countries.
The police records detail offences logged in the first 10 months of 2009.
Dubai has hit the headlines for its economic problems recently.
But the case of two Britons accused of having sex on a beach last year was one of the biggest stories to come out of emirate.
The case highlighted the dangers expatriates face in Dubai for behaviour that might be frowned upon back home but is unlikely to result in a prison sentence.
Dubai's dizzying growth has attracted more than three million expatriates and many tourists, drawn to its outlandish attractions, luxury hotels and year-round sunshine.
But Dubai remains a conservative Muslim country, where drinking alcohol, sex outside marriage and homosexuality are banned.
The country might have boomed on the back of it foreign workers and tourists, but many locals resent their behaviour.
Undercover police patrols of its packed beaches were initiated several years ago. Floodlights expose misbehaviour at night.
Couples kissing or touching, men watching women or taking photographs, and topless sunbathers can be stopped, questioned and even charged if they are repeat offenders.
The police say they have taken legal action against people accused of drinking, taking drugs and homosexuality.
But police statistics also reveal that the majority of those caught are from developing countries. The people who have largely built Dubai - but remain unwelcome on its beaches.
By BBC Bureau:
As the situation in Iran becomes increasingly volatile, we take a look at the players in Iranian society.
The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Ayatollah Khamenei is believed to back President Ahmadinejad
Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, is the country's most powerful figure.
He appoints the head of the judiciary, six of the 12 members of the powerful Guardian Council, the commanders of all the armed forces, Friday prayer leaders and the head of radio and TV. He also confirms the president's election.
Khamenei was a key figure in the Islamic revolution in Iran and a close confidant of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic republic. He was later president of Iran from 1981 to 1989 before becoming Supreme Leader for life.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
President Ahmadinejad was previously the mayor of Tehran
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has been Iran's president since 2005, was actively involved in the Islamic revolution and was a founding member of the student union that took over the US embassy in Tehran in 1979. But he denies being one of the hostage-takers.
He became the first non-cleric to be elected president since 1981 when he won a run-off vote against former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in elections in June 2005.
He is a hard-liner both at home - where he does not favour the development or reform of political institutions - and abroad, where he has maintained an anti-Western attitude and combative stance on Tehran's nuclear programme.
Much of his support comes from poorer and more religious sections of Iran's rapidly growing population, particularly outside Tehran.
Mir Hossein Mousavi
Mir Houssein Mousavi and his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, voting
Unusually for Iran, Mousavi's wife campaigned alongside him
The 68-year-old former prime minister stayed out of politics for some years but returned to stand as a moderate.
Mir Hossein Mousavi was born in East Azerbaijan Province and moved to Tehran to study architecture at university.
He is married to Zahra Rahnavard, a former chancellor of Alzahra University and political advisor to Iran's former President Mohammad Khatami.
One of his closest associates and backers in this election was Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former President of Iran who now heads two of the regime's most powerful bodies: the Expediency Council (which adjudicates disputes over legislation) and the Assembly of Experts (which appoints, and can theoretically replace, the Supreme Leader).
Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani
Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani
Rafsanjani has dominated Iranian politics since the 1980s
Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, has been a dominant figure in Iranian politics since the 1980s.
Described as a "pragmatic conservative", he is part of the religious establishment, but he is open to a broader range of views and has been more reflective on relations with the West.
Mr Rafsanjani was president for eight years from 1987 and ran again in 2005. He lost to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the second round. He has been openly critical of the president since then.
He is still a powerful figure in Iranian politics as he heads two of the regime's most powerful bodies: the Expediency Council (which adjudicates disputes over legislation) and the Assembly of Experts (which appoints, and can theoretically replace, the Supreme Leader). He is also a wealthy businessman.
Mohammad Khatami is a long-time friend and adviser of Mir Hossein Mousavi
The Iranian reform movement is a political movement led by a group of political parties and organizations in Iran who supported Mohammad Khatami's plans to introduce more freedom and democracy.
In 1997, Khatami was elected president on a platform of greater freedom of expression, as well as measures to tackle unemployment and boost privatisation. However, much of his initial liberalisations were stymied by resistance from the country's conservative institutions.
He initially stood for election in 2009 but later stood aside and lent his support to Mir Hossein Mousavi.
Other key reformist figures include Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mohsen Mirdamadi, Hadi Khamenei, Mohsen Aminzadeh, and Mostafa Tajzadeh.
The Revolutionary Guard and the Army
IRGC troops parade on Quds Day in Tehran
The Revolutionary Guard have influence in Iran's political world
The armed forces comprise the Revolutionary Guard and the regular forces. The two bodies are under a joint general command.
Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) was set up shortly after the revolution to defend the country's Islamic system, and to provide a counterweight to the regular armed forces.
It has since become a major military, political and economic force in Iran, with close ties to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a former member.
The force is estimated to have 125,000 active troops. It boasts its own ground forces, navy and air force, and oversees Iran's strategic weapons.
The Guards also have a powerful presence in civilian institutions and are thought to control around a third of Iran's economy through a series of subsidiaries and trusts.
Members of the Iranian Basiji militia take part in an annual military parade
The Basij serve as an auxiliary force
The Revolutionary Guard also controls the Basij Resistance Force, an Islamic volunteer militia of about 90,000 men and woman with an additional capacity to mobilise nearly 1m.
The Basij, or Mobilisation of the Oppressed, are often called out onto the streets at times of crisis to use force to dispel dissent. There are branches in every town.
Conservative clerics play an important part in political life in Iran
Clerics dominate Iranian society.
Only clerics can be elected to the Assembly of Experts, which appoints the Supreme Leader, monitors his performance and can in theory remove him if he is deemed incapable of fulfilling his duties. The Assembly is currently headed by Iran's former President Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is described as pragmatic and conservative.
Former President Mohammad Khatami accused the clerics of obstructing his reforms and warned against the dangers of religious "despotism".
Clerics also dominate the judiciary, which is based on Sharia (Islamic) law.
In recent years, conservative hardliners have used the judicial system to undermine reforms by imprisoning reformist personalities and journalists and closing down reformist papers.
By BBC Bureau:
Military prosecutors in Iran have charged three officials with killing three people held at a jail after presidential election protests.
They said the trio died at the Kahrizak detention centre after a series of beatings, Iran's Isna news agency said.
In total, the prosecutors issued indictments against 12 staff working at the facility south of Tehran.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election in June's poll triggered mass protests by opposition supporters.
The BBC's Tehran correspondent Jon Leyne, who is now in London, says most complaints about the treatment of the opposition have received angry denials from the government, particularly a number of allegations that male and female detainees have been raped by their prison interrogators.
It is not clear why the Iranian authorities have made even this small concession, our correspondent says.
One reason may be that one of the victims named by the government was a young man from a well connected Iranian family, whose death provoked outrage in ruling circles.
The suspicion from the opposition will be that this statement will just be followed by the prosecution of relatively low level officials - whereas many suspect that the maltreatment was ordered from much higher up, our correspondent adds.
'Bruises from beatings'
Isna quoted a prosecution office statement as naming the three killed as Mohsen Ruholamini, Amir Javadi and Mohammad Kamrani.
They were among more than 150 demonstrators taken to the centre, south of Tehran, in the aftermath of street protests, Isna added.
Officials had earlier said Ruholamini and Kamrani died of meningitis.
"The coroner rejected that these people died of meningitis and confirmed there were bruises on their bodies from beatings and that the cause of death was a series of beatings," the prosecution office's said.
Iran's government has said that at least 30 protesters have been killed in clashes since the election, which the opposition has described as rigged.
Some 200 anti-government protesters remain behind bars. At least five people have been sentenced to death, officials say.
The three officials charged in the Kahrizak case - whose names were not released - were among 12 officials facing prosecution over the inmates' deaths.
The Kahrizak centre was shut in July, after Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said it had failed to "preserve the rights of detainees".
By BBC Bureau:
Drinking whisky will result in a worse hangover than vodka, according to research by US scientists.
The reason might lie in the number of molecules called "congeners" which it contains compared to vodka, the Brown University team said.
But the study also suggested that sticking to vodka all night rather than whisky would not improve your performance at work the next day.
The study is published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.
Drinking too much of any alcoholic drink can have a number of undesireable short and long-term effects
Chris Sorek, DrinkAware
The 95 volunteers for the research, all healthy alcohol users, had one night of "acclimatisation" before drinking either whisky or vodka the following night.
They were given enough alcohol to put them a third over the legal driving limit for the UK.
On the third night they were given a "placebo" drink containing no alcohol.
On each occasion, they were then asked how they felt the following day, and were tested on how well they could concentrate on tasks.
The volunteers who drank whisky reported far more hangover symptoms such as headache nausea, thirst and fatigue compared with those who drank vodka.
However, the overall performance at the concentration task was roughly the same between the two groups.
Professor Damaris Rohsenow, who led the research at Brown University in Rhode Island, said: "While people felt worse, they didn't perform worse after bourbon (a type of whisky made in the US) than after vodka."
He said that the study also showed that workers in "safety-sensitive" roles could be impaired by drinking - long after the alcohol itself had disappeared from the bloodstream.
The study, which also monitored sleeping patterns in the volunteers, found that disrupted sleep was no worse in either group.
The reason why whisky might cause more unpleasant hangovers might lie in the number of molecules called "congeners" which it contains compared to vodka, said Professor Rohsenow.
These include small amounts of chemicals such as acetone, acetaldehyde and tannins.
Chris Sorek, the chief executive of charity Drinkaware, said that social drinkers should be aware that no alcoholic drink removed the risk of a hangover.
He said: "Christmas is a time to socialise and celebrate, but many people will be drinking excessively - drinking too much of any alcoholic drink can have a number of undesirable short and long-term effects."
While exceeding recommended daily limits might mean hangovers the following day, he said, in the long term, regular heavy drinking could increase the risk of cancer or liver disease.
By Owen Bennett-Jones
BBC News, Sanaa
Jewish leaders in Yemen say that there are now only 370 Jews left in the country, and the number is falling.
In recent months US officials and Jewish organisations have been flying Jews out of Yemen because, they say, it is too dangerous for them to remain.
Last year a Jewish man was murdered outside his home; many others have been threatened.
Rabbi Yusuf Mose Salem came to the Yemeni capital Sanaa after fleeing his home in North Yemen
Rabbi Yusuf Mose Salem
Rabbi Yusuf Mose Salem fled his home two years ago
He looks completely broken. Whenever he speaks, he weeps.
"They gave us a warning to leave in seven days or they would kill us," he told the BBC World Service, referring to militant Shia rebels in the north of the country.
"They destroyed the house, they levelled it to the ground. They left nothing for us, we fled with what we were wearing."
But despite the tears, the rabbi is determined to hang onto and to keep alive a tradition that goes back thousands of the years.
'Operation Magic Carpet'
"The Jews of Yemen go back to at least the sixth Century AD," says historian Tim Mackintosh Smith.
"We know this because there was actually a Jewish king here, Dhu Nuwas."
Mr Mackintosh Smith says the creation of Israel effectively broke the back of the Jewish community in Yemen.
I don't want the Jews to leave the country, and the Jews don't want to leave. This help is hurting us
Rabbi Yusuf Jaish
Following anti-Jewish riots in Yemen in the late 1940s, tens of thousands of Yemeni Jews were evacuated to Israel as part of an international airlift known as 'Operation Magic Carpet'.
On a smaller scale something similar is happening today.
US Jewish groups have raised US $750,000 to fly Yemeni Jews out of the country, in a programme initiated by the State Department.
Israel is also organising flights, and so far this year something like 20% of Yemen's remaining Jews have left.
But not all Jews in Yemen think this money is being well spent.
Rabbi Yusuf Jaish says the money raised in America should be spent on preserving their community in Yemen.
"If people want to support us," he says, "they should help us with schools and in marriages, but they should not be helping us to leave".
He says he wants the free flights to America to stop.
"I don't want the Jews to leave the country, and the Jews don't want to leave. This help is hurting us."
But the airlift organisers think it is time to accept the inevitable.
Yahya Ya'ish, president of the Yemenite Jewish Federation of America, says he does not see much of a future for the community in Yemen.
"It's gotten very dangerous," he says.
"We're working very closely with them to try to get the remnants that are there, that are interested in leaving of course, to get them out to wherever they want to go."
Shaukat Khani is one of those who took the decision to leave.
Three months ago he moved his whole family, including his wife and nine children, out to New York.
"There were some ignorant people, Muslims who'd practise discrimination. There were some killings. It was unsafe, that's why we left."
He also says life as a Jew in Yemen was difficult: "We had no-one to take care of the children in school, and we could not get meat butchered properly. There was no-one to take care of the weddings."
Mr Khani says he is very happy now in America: "There are Jews here, and schools for our children and hospitals for sick people."
"God bless the United States. We have been so well taken care of in so many details of our life. They give people whatever they want."
By Magdi Abdelhadi
Arab Affairs Analyst, BBC World Service
Amr Khaled's unique brand of Muslim preaching has made him one of the most popular preachers in the world.
Such is his appeal, he was recently named the 13th most influential person in the world by Time Magazine.
In Cairo, his DVDs stand on the top shelves reserved for best sellers in the Virgin record store, next to Bruce Willis and Charlie Chaplin.
His controversial style, comparable to the almost rock star approach of some of America's Christian evangelists, has drawn criticism from the religious establishment and he has moved away from his native Egypt.
Ironically, thanks to the proliferation of satellite channels, he is now able to reach far greater numbers than he could have ever done had his message remained within the confines of a mosque or a lecture hall.
Now, following on from his hugely successful TV shows - which are watched by millions across the world - Mr Khaled plans to launch his own version of the reality television show The Apprentice.
"The aim of it is not to make money, but to make the youth ready to support the society," he told the BBC.
Your behaviour is what defines a good Muslim - not how many times you recite the Koran in one week, or how many times you go to the mosque
Geneive Abdo, author
Listen to Magdi Abdelhadi's full documentary, Muslim Televangelists
The Apprentice began in the US with business magnate Donald Trump searching for a candidate to run one of his operations.
In the UK version of the show, the contestants compete for a six-figure salary working for multimillionaire businessman Lord Sugar. The unsuccessful candidates earn his catchphrase dismissal: "You're fired!"
But Mr Khaled said the fundamental difference between those and his own show was that the competition would not be for personal material gain, but would search out contestants who would come up with the best idea to serve his or her community.
"In one mission they will go to the villages," Mr Khaled explained, "and we'll see who can support the poor families in the villages better than the other."
The best ideas will see the team progress and, for the loser, a team member will be fired.
The secret of Mr Khaled's success is simple, say young women in colourful headscarves in Cairo: "He speaks our language."
Unlike traditional preachers, he wears a casual suit and uses the Egyptian vernacular in his programmes. Formally trained imams tend to use classical Arabic.
Mostafa Hosni, a televangelist, prepares to go live on air
Mostafa Hosni, a televangelist, prepares to go live on air
Mr Khaled, who even has his own YouTube channel, has spearheaded a growth in this style of evangelism.
But the difference goes beyond language, says Geneive Abdo, the author of a seminal book on Islamic revival in Egypt.
She believes the new breed of preachers appears to fulfil an important need.
"They have found a way to interject religion into a more modern lifestyle. In other words, your behaviour is what defines a good Muslim - not how many times you recite the Koran in one week, or how many times you go to the mosque," Ms Abdo argues.
In this sense, the young televangelists represent a paradigm shift. While the emphasis in traditional preaching is on rituals, theirs is on personal conduct and social responsibility.
"The Prophet Muhammad said to work, to support a poor family is better than to stay in a mosque 40 days," Mr Khaled has said. "How faith can help support the society, that is my way."
'Out of touch'
While preachers like Mr Khaled have angered the religious establishment - which often accuses them of not having formal training - their popularity is perhaps evidence that the old-style preachers may be out of touch with the predominantly young population.
It's a "more individualistic take on religion", says political scientist and writer Ezz El Din Shoukri when I ask him for an assessment of the phenomenon.
"It's a bit like the reform in Christianity in the Middle Ages.
"You move away from external authority to the individual's role in interpreting texts, in finding his or her way in life."
However, he says the trend is a double-edged sword.
"On TV you get the attention of tens of millions of people in the Arab world. When you have so much power, who guarantees what you are saying is not going to hurt these people? How would we know when you are wrong?
"You cannot afford as a society to give someone so much power without checking this power," Mr Shoukri warns.
Amr Khaled's modern style - and his success - has spawned a new wave of televangelists. Mostafa Hosni is just one of the newcomers.
The set for Mr Hosni's weekly programme looks like that of a pop music show, with the name, Love Story, drawn over a big purple heart in the background.
"The time has come to speak to the young in their language, to live in their world," he says.
And it's working. Along the banks of the Nile, huge crowds have gathered for a rock concert.
Among them are many young girls wearing the Islamic headscarf.
Do they watch the television preachers and are they influenced by them? Of course, says one.
"They are having the same thoughts as us."
By BBC Bureau:
A US Army general in northern Iraq has defended his decision to add pregnancy to the list of reasons a soldier under his command could face court martial.
It is current army policy to send pregnant soldiers home, but Maj Gen Anthony Cucolo told the BBC he was losing people with critical skills.
That was why the added deterrent of a possible court martial was needed, he said.
The new policy applies both to female and male soldiers, even if married.
It is the first time the US Army has made pregnancy a punishable offence.
I'm going to take every measure I can to keep them all strong, fit and with me
Gen Anthony Cucolo
Gen Cucolo told the BBC it was a "black and white" issue for him.
He said married soldiers in combat zones should either put their love lives on hold - or take precautions.
"I've got a mission to do, I'm given a finite number of soldiers with which to do it and I need every one of them."
"So I'm going to take every measure I can to keep them all strong, fit and with me for the twelve months we are in the combat zone," he said.
By BBC Bureau:
China's Xinjiang province is the country's most westerly region, bordering on the former Soviet states of Central Asia, as well as several other states including Afghanistan, Russia, and Mongolia.
The largest ethnic group, the Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uighurs, has lived in China's shadow for centuries. The region has had an intermittent history of autonomy and occasional independence, but was finally brought under Chinese control in the 18th century.
Economic development of the region under Communist rule has been accompanied by large-scale immigration of Han Chinese, and Uighur allegations of discrimination and marginalisation have been behind more visible anti-Han and separatist sentiment since the 1990s. This has flared into violence on occasion.
Xinjiang, about the size of Iran, is divided into the Dzungarian Basin in the north and the Tarim Basin in the south by a mountain range.
The economy of this once agricultural region has developed fast since 1949, and oil and petrochemicals now account for about 60 per cent of its GDP. It is also an important trade and pipeline route into Central Asia and beyond.
The region was contested by various Turkic groups, Mongols and the Chinese until the 18th century, when the Chinese Qing Dynasty brought the whole area under its control.
Russia's conquest of the neighbouring Central Asian states of Kokand and Bukhara led to a renewed struggle for control over the area, with the Kokand general Yaqub Bek establishing a de facto independent state in Kashgar in 1865. China gradually regained control of the region and formally set up Xinjiang Province in 1884.
Russian influence remained strong, especially during the rule of various warlords after the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912. The Soviet Union supported an Uighur-led separatist East Turkestan Republic in the north of the region in 1944-1949, but helped to extinguish it when the Communists took over in China proper.
XINJIANG: ETHNIC UNREST
Chinese paramilitary officers in Urumqi
Main ethnic division: 45% Uighur, 40% Han Chinese
26 June: Mass factory brawl after dispute between Han Chinese and Uighurs in Guangdong, southern China, leaves two Uighurs dead
5 July: Uighur protest in Urumqi over the dispute turns violent, leaving 156 dead - most of them thought to be Han - and more than 1,000 hurt
7 July: Uighur women protest at arrests of menfolk. Han Chinese make armed counter-march
8 July: President Hu Jintao returns from G8 summit to tackle crisis
July-August: More than 1,500 people are arrested in connection with the riots
October: 12 people sentenced to death for involvement in the violence
Communist China established the Autonomous Region in 1955, and began to encourage Han Chinese to settle there in new industrial towns and farming villages run by the quasi-military Xinjiang Production and Development Corps. China also set up its nuclear testing facility at Lop Nur in the Tarim Basin, conducting the first test there in 1964.
In the 2000 census Han Chinese made up 40 per cent of the population of Xinjiang, excluding large numbers of troops stationed in the region and unknown numbers of unregistered migrants, and Uighurs accounted for about 45 per cent.
International attention turned to Xinjiang in July 2009 when bloody clashes between Uighurs and Han Chinese in the region's main city, Urumqi, promoted the Chinese government to send large numbers of troops to patrol the streets. Nearly 200 people were killed in the unrest, most of them Han, according to officials.
Protests against Chinese rule had already emerged in the 1990s, to which the Chinese authorities reacted forcefully. These culminated in clashes in the city of Yining (Ghulja in Uighur) in 1997 in protest at the execution of 30 alleged separatists. The authorities reported nine dead in the violence, although separatists said more than a hundred protesters were killed.
Protests resumed in March 2008 in the cities of Urumqi and Hotan, and spread to Kashgar and elsewhere through the summer - coinciding with the Olympic Games in Beijing. There were reports of bus bombings and attacks on police stations.
The main Uighur groups abroad are the separatist East Turkestan Liberation Movement, founded in Turkey in the late 1990s, and the World Uighur Congress, which was set up in Germany in 2004.
The latter is led by Rebiya Kadeer, a businesswoman and politician who broke with Beijing over the Ghulja clashes in 1997 and spent years in prison before being allowed to emigrate in 2005. China has said the "East Turkestan Islamic Movement" is behind separatist attacks, but exiled Uighurs and independent specialists on the area have cast doubt on whether such an organization exists.
By BBC Bureau:
he latest unrest in China's western Xinjiang region follows a long history of discord between China's authorities and the Uighur minority.
Who are the Uighurs?
The Uighurs are Muslims. Their language is related to Turkish and they regard themselves as culturally and ethnically close to Central Asian nations.
Kashgar street scene
China maintains a high military presence in the Xinjiang region
The region's economy has for centuries revolved around agriculture and trade, with towns such as Kashgar thriving as hubs along the famous Silk Road.
In the early part of the 20th Century, the Uighurs briefly declared independence. The region was brought under the complete control of communist China in 1949.
Officially Xinjiang is now described by China as an autonomous region, like Tibet to its south.
What are China's concerns about the Uighurs?
Beijing says Uighur militants have been waging a violent campaign for an independent state by plotting bombings, sabotage and civic unrest.
Since the 9/11 attacks in the US, China has increasingly portrayed its Uighur separatists as auxiliaries of al-Qaeda.
It has accused them of receiving training and indoctrination from Islamist militants in neighbouring Afghanistan, although little public evidence has been produced in support of these claims.
More than 20 Uighurs were captured by the US military after its invasion of Afghanistan. Although they were imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay for six years, they were not charged with any offence and many have now been accepted for resettlement elsewhere.
What complaints have been made against the Chinese in Xinjiang?
Activists say the Uighurs' religious, commercial and cultural activities have been gradually curtailed by the Chinese state.
China is accused of intensifying its crackdown on the Uighurs after street protests in the 1990s - and again in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics.
Over the past decade, many prominent Uighurs have been imprisoned or have sought asylum abroad after being accused of terrorism.
China is said to have exaggerated the threat from Uighur separatists in order to justify repression in the region.
Beijing has also been accused of seeking to dilute Uighur influence by arranging the mass immigration of Han Chinese, the country's majority ethnic group, to Xinjiang.
The percentage of Han Chinese in the region has gradually been rising. Han currently account for roughly 40% of Xinjiang's population, while about 45% are Uighurs.
What is the current situation in Xinjiang?
Over the past decade, major development projects have brought prosperity to Xinjiang's big cities.
The activities of local and foreign journalists are closely monitored by the Chinese state and there are few independent sources of news from the region.
China has been keen to highlight improvements made to the region's economy while Uighurs interviewed by the press have avoided criticising Beijing.
However occasional attacks on Chinese targets suggest Uighur separatism remains a potent - and potentially violent - force.
Why did the July violence happen?
At least 150 people died in ethnic violence in July 2009 - and while officials say most of the dead were Han Chinese, Uighur groups deny this.
One of the sparks for the violence seems to have been the deaths of two Uighurs in clashes with Han Chinese at a factory in southern China in June.
On 5 July, Uighurs came out onto the streets of Urumqi to protest about these killings - but how and why these protests turned violent remains a contentious issue.
The authorities blame Xinjiang separatists based outside China for the unrest, and they have singled out exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer.
"Rebiya had phone conversations with people in China on 5 July in order to incite," Xinjiang Governor Nur Bekri said in a televised address.
But Rebiya Kadeer told the BBC she was not responsible for any of the violence.
"Last time during the Tibet riots, [the Chinese government] blamed the Dalai Lama, and now with the Xinjiang riot, they are blaming me," she said.
Uighur exiles say police fired indiscriminately on peaceful protests - adding that this was what led to the violence and deaths.
The recent Urumqi and Lhasa riots have shattered the myth of a monolithic China, writes China and Uighur expert Professor Dru Gladney.
Foreigners and the Chinese themselves typically picture China's population as a vast homogeneous Han majority with a sprinkling of exotic minorities living along the country's borders.
This understates China's tremendous cultural, geographic, and linguistic diversity - in particular the important cultural differences within the Han population. More importantly, recent events suggest that China may well be increasingly insecure regarding not only these nationalities, but also its own national integration.
The unprecedented early departure of President Hu Jintao from the G8 meetings in Italy to attend to the ethnic problems in Xinjiang is an indication of the seriousness with which China regards this issue.
Across the country, China is seeing a resurgence of local ethnicity and culture, most notably among southerners such as the Cantonese and Hakka, who are now classified as Han.
For centuries, China has held together a vast multi-cultural and multi-ethnic nation despite alternating periods of political centralization and fragmentation. But cultural and linguistic cleavages could worsen in a China weakened by internal strife, an economic downturn, uneven growth, or a struggle over future political succession.
The initial brawl between workers in a Guangdong toy factory, which left at least two Uighur dead on 25 June, prompted the mass unrest in Xinjiang on 5 July, which ended with 156 dead, thousands injured, and 1500 arrested, with on-going violence spreading throughout the region.
The National Day celebrations scheduled for October 2009, seeks to highlight 60 years of the "harmonious" leadership of the Communist Party in China, and like the 2008 Olympics, its enormous success. The rioting threatens to de-rail these celebrations.
Officially, China is made up of 56 nationalities: one majority nationality, the Han, and 55 minority groups. The 2000 census revealed a total official minority population of nearly 104m, or approximately 9% of the total population.
The peoples identified as Han comprise 91% of the population from Beijing in the north to Canton in the south, and include the Hakka, Fujianese, Cantonese, and other groups. These Han are thought to be united by a common history, culture, and written language; differences in language, dress, diet, and customs are regarded as minor and superficial. An active state-sponsored programme assists these official minority cultures and promotes their economic development (with mixed results).
The recognition of minorities, however, also helped the Communists' long-term goal of forging a united Chinese nation by solidifying the recognition of the Han as a unified "majority". Emphasizing the difference between Han and minorities helped to de-emphasize the differences within the Han community.
The Communists incorporated the idea of Han unity into a Marxist ideology of progress, with the Han in the forefront of development and civilization. The more "backward" or "primitive" the minorities were, the more "advanced" and "civilized" the so-called Han seemed, and the greater the need for a unified national identity.
new highrise developments in Beijing"s Central Business District
Teh Han comprise 91% of the population from Beijing to Canton
Minorities who do not support development policies are thought to be "backward" and anti-modern, holding themselves and the country back.
The supposedly homogenous Han speak eight mutually unintelligible languages. Even these sub-groups show marked linguistic and cultural diversity.
China's policy toward minorities involves official recognition, limited autonomy, and unofficial efforts at control. Although totalling only 9% of the population, they are concentrated in resource-rich areas spanning nearly 60% of the country's landmass and exceed 90% of the population in counties and villages along many border areas of Xinjiang, Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Yunnan.
Xinjiang occupies one-sixth of China's landmass, with Tibet the second-largest province.
Indeed, one might even say it has become popular to be "ethnic" in today's China. Mongolian hot pot, Muslim noodle, and Korean barbecue restaurants proliferate in every city, while minority clothing, artistic motifs, and cultural styles adorn Chinese bodies and private homes.
China's threats will most likely come from civil unrest, and perhaps internal ethnic unrest from within the so-called Han majority
This rise of "ethnic chic" is in dramatic contrast to the anti-ethnic homogenizing policies of the late 1950s anti-Rightist period, the Cultural Revolution, the late-1980s "spiritual pollution" campaigns, and now the ethnic riots in the west.
While ethnic separatism on its own will never be a serious threat to a strong China, a China weakened by internal strife, inflation, uneven economic growth, or the struggle for political succession could become further divided along cultural and linguistic lines.
China's separatists, such as they are, could never mount such a co-ordinated attack as was seen on 11 September, 2001 in the United States, and China's more closed society lacks the openness that has allowed terrorists to move so freely in the West.
China's threats will most likely come from civil unrest, and perhaps internal ethnic unrest from within the so-called Han majority. We should recall that it was a southerner, born and educated abroad, who led the revolution that ended China's last dynasty.
Moreover, the Taiping Rebellion that nearly brought down the Qing dynasty also had its origins in the southern border region of Guangxi among so-called marginal Yao and Hakka peoples.
These events are being remembered as the generally well-hidden and overlooked "Others" within Chinese society begin to reassert their own identities, in addition to the official nationalities.
Dru Gladney is a China expert and president of the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College in California.
By BBC Bureau:
A group of 20 Chinese Uighurs who fled to Cambodia after ethnic riots in July have been deported back to China.
The United Nations refugee agency strongly condemned the deportation, saying Cambodia had committed a grave breach of international refugee law.
The decision follows intense pressure by China, which has referred to the group as criminals.
Human rights groups have warned that the group is likely to face persecution on return to China.
The expulsions came ahead of a visit to Cambodia by Chinese Vice-President Xi Jingping on Sunday. There has been no immediate comment from the Chinese foreign ministry.
A protest by Uighurs in the city of Urumqi, in Xinjiang region, erupted into violence in July, leaving at least 197 people dead.
Shops were smashed and vehicles set alight while passers-by were set upon by Uighur rioters in the city, whose population is mostly from China's dominant Han group.
Groups of Han later went looking for revenge as police struggled to restore order.
Most of those killed in the unrest were Han, according to officials, and Urumqi's Han population had demanded swift justice.
Twelve people were sentenced to death after the riots.
Tensions between the mainly-Muslim Uighurs of Xinjiang and Han have been growing in recent years. Millions of Han have moved to the region in recent decades.
Many Uighurs want more autonomy and rights for their culture and religion than is allowed by Beijing's strict rule.