Authorities in China's Xinjiang region said Tuesday that they had shot dead 22 Uyghurs accused of terrorism last week, revising higher an initial death toll in one of the biggest crackdowns on the ethnic minority Muslim group.
They said they have also arrested four Uyghurs in a raid on a house where the 22 were gunned down on Aug. 20 at the edge of a desert area in the Yilkiqi township in Kargilik (in Chinese, Yecheng) county in Xinjiang's southwestern Kashgar prefecture.
The death toll was revised upward after police and other sources had said at the weekend that based on initial reports, 15 Uyghurs and one Han Chinese policeman were killed in the "anti-terror" operation.
The Yilkiqi shooting follows a spate of violence across Xinjiang in recent months that has led to massive arrests, with hundreds of Uyghurs taken into custody for interrogations by the authorities in the troubled northwestern region of China.
"Two days after the incident, the township government informed us at a meeting that 22 people had died and four others were arrested," Mahmut Han, the chief of Islamic Association of Yilkiqi Township, told RFA's Uyghur Service.
According to officials, he said, the shootout was ordered after police, backed by a helicopter, closely monitored "suspicious activity" for about a week around the house where the Uyghurs had been living.
"The township's [ruling Chinese Communist] Party secretary criticized us [the township's officials] for not being alert in detecting such activities," Mahmut Han said.
The deputy chief of Yilkiqi township, Alim Hamid, said that he was at the scene of the shootout, following which "22 bodies in black bags were carried out by police to an unknown destination."
"Police informed us that those who were killed were terrorists," he told RFA. "But they didn't specify what wrong they had done."
"Now we have strengthened security in the township in line with orders from the government and we are on the lookout for people from out of town," Alim Hamid said. "They will be identified and their particulars given to the police."
Chinese authorities usually blame outbreaks of violence in Xinjiang on "terrorists" among the region's ethnic minority Muslim Uyghurs.
But rights groups and experts say Beijing exaggerates the terrorism threat to take the heat off domestic policies that cause unrest or to justify the authorities' use of force against Uyghurs.
Mahmut Han said four of the dead were from Yilkiqi while the rest were believed to be from a neighboring township, though their identities had not been revealed.
A map of Xinjiang showing Kashgar's Kargilik (Yecheng) county.
Sources said the 22 were believed to have been buried immediately without their next of kin being informed.
"I heard that the bodies were taken and buried together on a hilltop in a neighboring township," a Yilkiqi resident told RFA, speaking on condition of anonymity.
He cited contacts as telling him that the police killed the 22 while they were performing their prayers. Six knives and axes were recovered from the scene, police had said earlier.
"When they gathered for prayers, police surrounded them and fired at them," the resident said.
He said that he used to pass by the house at which the 22 were gunned down while on his daily way to work.
He believed that the house owner may have been among those shot dead and that the others had been working for him at a nearby farm.
"They work in the day and pray at night at the house," the resident said.Condemnation
The Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC), a Uyghur exile group, condemned the Yilkiqi killings, saying "the authorities were intent on killing those present rather than allowing them to stand before a court to defend themselves against these allegations on which little has been disclosed."
WUC President Rebiya Kadeer said the Chinese authorities "continue to use the same banal rhetoric for such incidents which fails to adequately address the longstanding issues underlying the bubbling tensions in East Turkestan [Xinjiang]."
She said the Yilkiqi incident "only serves to exacerbate increasing distrust in the authorities due to the pervasive impunity of their actions.”
Rebiya Kadeer called on the international community to "keep a watchful eye upon developments in East Turkestan, and ensure that they do not fall foul to the erroneous and leaky narrative of the Chinese authorities.”
The latest violence came nearly two weeks after a Uyghur religious leader was stabbed to death after returning home from leading evening prayers at a mosque in Turpan city in Xinjiang's Turpan prefecture.
The imam was targeted by members of his own community for branding Uyghurs as "terrorists" and backing a government crackdown against them, residents and officials said.
In early August, police opened fire on a crowd of Uyghurs protesting prayer restrictions in Akyol town in Aksu prefecture ahead of the festival marking the end of Islam's holy month of Ramadan, killing at least three and injuring about 50 others.
In June, up to 46 people were killed in Lukchun township of Pichan county in Turpan prefecture after police opened fire on "knife-wielding mobs" who had attacked police stations and other sites in the county, in the bloodiest violence since the July 5, 2009 unrest in Xinjiang's regional capital Urumqi that triggered a massive crackdown.
Also in June, in Hotan prefecture's Hanerik township, police fired on hundreds of Uyghurs protesting the arrest of a young religious leader and closure of a mosque, officials said, acknowledging that up to 15 people may have been killed and 50 others injured.
Uyghurs in Xinjiang say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness, blaming their hardships partly on a massive influx of Han Chinese into the region.Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA's Uyghur Service. Translated by Dolkun Kamberi. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai