Eleven of the 28 members of what China said was a “terrorist group” killed by police in a recently announced raid in northwestern China’s mainly Muslim Xinjiang region are believed to have been women and children, according to local sources.
Last week, Chinese official media reported that police killed the 28 people following a two-month manhunt for suspects in a deadly coal mine attack in Aksu (in Chinese, Akesu) prefecture’s Bay (Baicheng) county in September.
On Monday, sources in Bay said they learned many more suspects had been killed in the raid than previously believed after speaking with people from neighboring townships in the county.
“After the raid operation, I heard the total number of suspects was 17—belonging to three families,” a food stall owner at the Bay county bazaar told RFA’s Uyghur Service, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Later, I heard from my customers who live in [Bay’s] Bulung and Karabagh townships that there were an additional two families from those places among the suspects, and that their indirect relatives and friends were also detained during the manhunt, though I don’t remember their names.”
A second food stall owner at the bazaar, who also declined to be named, said that nearly one-third of those killed in the raid were believed to be women and children traveling with male members of their families.
“There is speculation among the public that 11 of the 28 suspects who were killed at the cave [where they hid] were women and children, but I don’t know the source of the information,” he said.
Turghun Turdi, the deputy chairman of the Bay county Police department, confirmed that 28 people had died in the raid.
“Yes, they consisted of five or six families and there are many details about their relationships with one another,” he said.
“You should contact the group investigating the case or the [manhunt] operation command center. While the operation was underway, I was only in charge of organizing local farmers to support the soldiers.”
Turghun Turdi and other officials from Bay county refused to respond to a report by the official People's Liberation Army (PLA) Daily on Monday that authorities had used a flamethrower to flush the suspects out of their cave before killing them.
Other sources RFA spoke to in Bay county said it was likely, though, as official reports suggested the group was “annihilated.”
RFA’s Uyghur Service had previously reported that 17 people—including four women and three children—were being hunted by authorities in connection with the mine attack after speaking with Elniyaz Turdi, the chief of Chokatal village in Bay’s Kanchi township. Sources later confirmed they had been killed in the raid.
On Monday, Elniyaz Turdi acknowledged that he “only knew the number and identity of the suspects who were residents of our Chokatal village.”
“I was never informed by my superiors about whether there were other suspects from other townships [in Bay],” he said.
Attempts by RFA to contact sources in townships other than Kanchi to confirm the number of suspects being sought in the manhunt went unanswered, likely due to a heavy crackdown on the flow of information out of the region amid the operation.
According to last week’s announcement on the Xinjiang regional government's Tianshan web portal, the slain group of 28 had committed "a violent terrorist attack under the direct command of an overseas extremist organization."
Repeating a report that appeared briefly on China’s Ministry of Public Security announced on Nov. 14 before it was removed, Tianshan said the 28 were killed and one person surrendered, during a 56-day manhunt.
Call for investigation
On Tuesday, New York-based Human Rights Watch called on the Chinese government to allow independent observers and monitors to investigate the raid, saying that “clarifying facts on the ground is essential in order to determine whether excessive force was used.”
“Violence aimed at terrorizing the population is always utterly deplorable, but it does not shield the government’s response from scrutiny,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.
“The death toll in China’s counterterrorism campaigns is deepening skepticism about Beijing’s tactics and goals. If China truly has nothing to hide, then it is past time to allow United Nations experts, independent journalists, diplomats, and other observers free access to the region to examine all such incidents.”
Human Rights Watch noted that China’s central government and Xinjiang authorities also tightly control visits to the region by diplomats and journalists, making verification of the circumstances surrounding violent incidents extremely difficult.
Chinese authorities have a duty to both protect public order and to respect the rights of both suspects and the general population, the group said, adding that the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, which reflect customary international law, require law enforcement officials to use intentional lethal force only when strictly unavoidable to protect life.
The principles also require governments to ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offense under their law, it said.
“After the Paris attacks Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called on the world to end ‘double standards’ and acknowledge China’s terrorism problems,” Richardson said.
“But Beijing undermines its credibility by strangling access to Xinjiang, and the only way to regain it is to allow independent investigations.”
China has vowed to crack down on the "three evils" of terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism in Xinjiang, but experts outside China say Beijing has exaggerated the threat from Uyghur "separatists" and that domestic policies are responsible for an upsurge in violence that has left hundreds dead since 2012.
Uyghur groups in exile say such attacks are likely expressions of resistance to Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang, where Uyghurs complain of pervasive ethnic discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression by China’s communist government.
Rights groups accuse the Chinese authorities of heavy-handed rule in Xinjiang, including violent police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Shohret Hoshur. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.