At least 18 people are dead following a knife and bomb attack by a group of ethnic Uyghurs on a police traffic checkpoint in northwestern China’s troubled Xinjiang region, sources said Tuesday, amid harsh restrictions on observance of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
One source said the incident, which occurred Monday in the Tahtakoruk district of southwestern Xinjiang’s Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi) city, left as many as 28 people dead, several of whom were bystanders.
The attack began when a car sped through a traffic checkpoint without stopping, Turghun Memet, an officer with the nearby Heyhag district police station told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
“When one of the policemen at the checkpoint ran out of the booth, the car backed up, hitting him and breaking his leg,” Memet said.
“Two other suspects then rushed out of the car, using knives to attack and kill two police officers who had come to rescue their comrade,” he said.
The remaining traffic police, who do not carry guns, called for backup from Memet’s department and the People’s Armed Police (PAP).
“By the time armed police reached the scene, three more suspects had arrived by sidecar motorcycle and attacked the checkpoint and police cars with explosives, killing one regular police officer, another traffic policeman and one auxiliary officer,” Memet said.
“They also injured four other officers and damaged a police vehicle,” he said.
“At that point, our [armed officers] arrived and killed 15 suspects we designated as terrorists.”
Memet said the car used by the attackers had displayed a license plate from Kizilsu Kirghiz Autonomous Prefecture’s Atush (in Chinese, Atushi) city, but he was told they were residents of Kashgar prefecture’s Yengisheher (Shule) and Peyziwat (Jiashi) counties.
“The security is tight in [downtown Kashgar], so they chose to attack an area on the outskirts of the city,” he said.
“They were in possession of simple weapons, so they targeted [an unarmed] traffic police checkpoint.”
Information ‘tightly controlled’
A police officer from Kashgar’s Ostengboyi station, near the site of the attack, confirmed the incident to RFA, but said it was unclear how many people had died.
“The number of the dead varies even among the police—especially when it comes to the number of female suspects,” the officer said on condition of anonymity, adding that he had heard either three or eight women were involved in the attack.
“Some are saying that all of the suspects were killed, while others say some were injured and taken to the hospital for treatment,” he said.
“Information about this kind of incident is always tightly controlled—not even the police are given the details. But people are saying that the dead numbered around 20.”
The officer noted that the attack occurred during the sensitive month of Ramadan and had “a massive effect” on the inhabitants of the city.
“Even the police are panicked and the situation is still very tense right now.”
An officer from the Qoghan police station, which has jurisdiction over the site of the incident, also said the attackers were from Yengisheher and Peyziwat counties, but decided to target Kashgar because the city is more populated.
“I assume that they intended to do more damage in a bigger crowd in Kashgar city,” he said, adding that an investigation into the attack was ongoing.
‘Running for their lives’
A food vendor who works near where the attack occurred said the sound of explosions and prolonged gunfire prompted him to open his shop door a crack so he could see what was happening.
“I saw people running for their lives in all directions when the police fired, including a lot of women who were crying and screaming,” he said, adding that if the women had been among the attackers “they would not have run and cried.”
“We weren’t given any information about the suspects’ identities. The government usually refers to them as ‘terrorists’ in this kind of situation and they may do so this time as well.”
A retired government worker, who also declined to give his name, said he had heard from a police officer that “28 people were killed in the incident, including six attackers and three police, while the others were all bystanders.”
“It seems the police who arrived at the spot were either panicked or encouraged by the ‘strike hard’ policy, because they opened fire indiscriminately and many people who were not linked to the attackers got killed,” he said.
Authorities have launched a “strike hard” campaign in Xinjiang in the name of fighting separatism, religious extremism, and terrorism, following a string of violent incidents that have left hundreds dead in recent years.
The government worker said he believed the incident was prompted by the restrictions put in place by authorities during the month of Ramadan, which he called “very extreme.”
“I think this is the first reaction to this year’s Ramadan restrictions,” he said.
“If such restrictions were implemented in other parts of the [Muslim] world, they would have led to bloody incidents on a mass scale, but we Uyghurs are a defenseless and helpless people and this is the reaction.”
The attack comes a week after millions of Uyghurs began observance of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan under increasing official pressure not to fast.
Uyghur officials and other state employees like teachers have been banned from fasting, and it is against the law for children under 18 to take part in religious activities.
Restaurants in the region are typically required to stay open all day, even if the owners are Muslim, and Uyghur children and young people are often required to attend free lunches in the region's schools and universities to avoid the dawn-to-dusk fast traditionally observed during Ramadan.
Turkic-speaking minority Uyghurs have complained about pervasive ethnic discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression by Chinese authorities.
Last October, authorities tightened rules forbidding anyone under the age of 18 from following a religion, targeting families whose children studied the Quran or fasted during Ramadan with hefty fines.
Authorities in the Hotan, Kashgar, and Aksu prefectures of Xinjiang have forced Uyghur parents to sign pledges promising not to allow their children to participate in religious activities, the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress exile group has said.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.