A group of 22 Uyghurs were caught flat-footed when Chinese police shot them dead in a house raid in Xinjiang last week because one of their colleagues who was supposed to be on sentry duty deserted them at the last minute, according to local officials.
The authorities have said that the 22 were gunned down and four others were arrested in an anti-terrorism operation on Aug. 20 while they were praying in the house at the edge of a desert area in the Yilkiqi township in Kargilik (in Chinese, Yecheng) county in Xinjiang's southwestern Kashgar prefecture.
Five of those killed and one of those arrested have been identified so far and were from villages in the neighboring Shahap township, local officials said as they gave sketchy details of one of the biggest crackdowns in Xinjiang, home of the ethnic minority Muslim Uyghurs, who say they are being discriminated against by Chinese authorities.
Memtimin Mamut, 31, was supposed to have been on duty guarding the house on the day of the shooting "but he escaped and hid in his mother-in-law's house in Shahap," and was later arrested, Turadin Tursun, chief of No. 2 village in Shahap told RFA's Uyghur Service.
"The group were caught off guard as the Chinese SWAT team surrounded the house and killed them as they were praying," he said.
"Memtimin Mamut's absence was very helpful for the police operation," Turadin Tursun said. "He escaped but did not report the issue to the police. If he had reported it to them, it would have been much better for him and for our village."
Memtimin Mamut was ill and wanted to take a rest at home but his request was denied by his group, according to Turadin Tursun, citing information from police officers who he had helped in the capture of Memtimin Mamut, a local merchant and father of two.
Spate of violence
The Yilkiqi shooting, which has been condemned by Uyghur exile groups, follows a spate of violence across Xinjiang in recent months that has led to massive arrests, with hundreds of Uyghurs taken into custody for interrogation by the authorities in the troubled northwestern region of China.
Among those killed in Yilkiqi was Nurxmet Emey, 29, the owner of the house where the Uyghurs had stayed. The others were identified as Toxti Mamut, 19, Ablimit Abdukerim, 37, Memet Emetniyaz, 38, and Abduraxman Turup, 22.
Turadin Tursun said three of the dead who had been identified were from his village and, according to information received, they had "appeared normal" prior to the shooting.
"It was business as usual for them," he said, adding that during the Eid al-Fitr festival, marking the end of Islam's holiest month of Ramadan, Memtimin Mamut was selling barbecued food in front of the mosque.
"Now we know that they tried not to draw our attention by running small businesses such as that one," a police officer in Shahap township said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
According to officials, 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.
Six knives and axes were recovered from the scene of the shooting, police had said earlier.
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.
The Uyghur American Association (UAA) condemned the Yilkiqi shooting in a statement late Wednesday, calling on the international community to view Chinese claims of terrorism against Uyghurs with "utmost skepticism."
“Another Chinese raid on so-called Uyghur terrorists brings more death, pain, and sadness to East Turkestan [Xinjiang]. It appears the Chinese authorities are only prepared to offer state-sanctioned violence as a solution to the Uyghur issue," UAA president Alim Seytoff said in a statement in Washington.
"The belief that in repeating its terror narrative the Chinese government will convince the world its repression of Uyghurs is justified must not be realized,” he said. “No independent evidence has been produced to verify Chinese government claims that it killed so-called Uyghur terrorists. The international community should investigate these claims and express concern over mounting Uyghur deaths.”
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA's Uyghur Service. Translated by Shohret Hoshur. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.