Twenty-one people have been killed in clashes in the troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang, reports said Wednesday, amid charges by exile groups that the violence stemmed from persistent raids by the Chinese authorities on ethnic Uyghur homes.
Local authorities said the violence Tuesday in Maralbeshi (in Chinese, Bachu) county in Kashgar prefecture erupted after community officials were "seized" by "rioters" in the home of a local resident while they were patrolling the area.
There was a shootout by the authorities and the house in Siriqbuya (in Chinese, Selibuya) township was burned down, reports said.
An eyewitness told RFA's Uyghur Service that the violence was triggered when a local community watch group ordered a woman to lift a veil covering her face while searching Uyghur houses in the Third Residential Committee area near the People's Square bazaar.
"When she refused, one of the watch group's member removed her veil, triggering the conflict," said the male employee of an electronics shop nearby, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"I saw people were running and police were shouting, and, through my shop window, I saw smoke billowing from the area where the incident occurred," a hairdresser working in the bazaar one kilometer (0.6 miles) away said.
A police officer in neighboring Mekit county told RFA he was informed that police were searching the houses for a suspect from Pichan (in Chinese, Shanshan) county in Xinjiang’s Turpan prefecture when the killings occurred.
A seven-year-old Uyghur boy was hacked to death by a Han Chinese suspect two weeks ago in Pichan county and the authorities had stepped up security to prevent retaliation by Uyghur groups.
There were also contradictions on the identities of the 21 killed in the Maralbeshi incident, the worst violence in Xinjiang in four years.
One local government official was quoted saying that six of the dead were Uyghur "terrorists" or "thugs." Xinhua said the other 15 killed were community officials—10 Uyghurs, three Han Chinese, and two Mongolians.
But Hou Hanmin, spokeswoman for the Xinjiang government, identified the dead as nine "residents," six police, and six Uyghurs. Eight other Uyghur suspects have been held.
"It's certainly a terrorist attack," Hou was quoted saying by Reuters news agency.
Chinese authorities often accuse Uyghurs of terrorist activities but experts familiar with the region have said Beijing exaggerates a terrorism threat to take the heat off domestic policies that cause unrest.
Exile groups said Tuesday's clashes were sparked by the killing of a Muslim Uyghur youth by armed police, who fired on an angry protest by local people.
According to Sweden-based Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress, local sources said that local residents had faced off with police over continual raids on Uyghur homes.
"Clashes broke out when the Uyghurs were protesting continual raids by the Chinese, and the Chinese armed police fired first, killing a young Uyghur man, which prompted [the violence]," Raxit said.
"The Chinese armed police rushed to the scene to suppress the [protest], and shot dead a Uyghur," he said.
Dilxat Raxit said the authorities were using allegations of terrorism as a way of covering up the armed crackdown on protesters.
"They are trying to make it [appear] legitimate," he said.
According to the Chinese authorities, however, three community-level officials who discovered "suspicious individuals" and knives in the home of a local resident were attacked and killed after they called for back-up.
Xinjiang regional government spokeswoman Hou said that the community workers were carrying out "routine checks" on homes in the area, when they were told that "suspicious people" had been seen in a nearby house.
They called for help after finding knives on the premises, and were set upon by 14 Uyghur "rioters," whose actions appeared to be planned, she said.
Xinhua said that both police officers and officials were killed by the suspects, who then burned down the house.
Local businesses closed
The violence is believed to be the worst since ethnic clashes between Muslim Uyghurs and Han Chinese rocked Xinjiang's regional capital of Urumqi in 2009, killing nearly 200.
A Han Chinese shop owner near the scene of the incident said he had heard gunshots and immediately took cover inside his shop.
"They just smashed up the police station," he said. "They didn't do anything to us regular citizens."
The shop owner said the community officials "were killed as soon as they stepped outside."
Calls to the municipal police department in Kashgar, which administers Maralbeshi county, went unanswered during office hours on Wednesday.
Local businesses remained closed following the violence, residents said, with the town on high alert for "terrorist attacks."
An employee who answered the phone at a hotel in Siriqbuya said it had been ordered to close for several days by police.
Meanwhile, the United States urged China to carry out a transparent probe of the violence and "take steps to reduce tensions and promote long-term stability in Xinjiang."
"We urge the Chinese authorities to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation of this incident and to provide all Chinese citizens—including Uyghurs—the due-process protections to which they're entitled," State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters.
In Beijing, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying hit out at "violent terrorist acts."
"The current situation in Xinjiang is good, but a small group of terrorist forces is still trying every possible means to disturb and destroy the present stability and trend of development in Xinjiang," Hua said.
Last week, a U.S. State Department annual report on global human rights practices said that China is waging an "increasingly harsh repression" against Tibetans and Uyghurs.
In Xinjiang, rights groups say that the Chinese authorities are indiscriminately jailing Uyghurs in the name of fighting terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism, and are intensifying the influx of Han Chinese in the region.
Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA's Uyghur Service, Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service, and Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated by Dolkun Kamberi, Luisetta Mudie, and Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Luisetta Mudie and Parameswaran Ponnudurai.