Twelve children suffered burns when police on Wednesday stormed an "illegal" Islamic school in China's troubled Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in an incident that an exile rights group said highlighted religious discrimination.
According to state media, police moved to rescue a group of children from "illegal preachers" in southern Xinjiang's Hotan (in Chinese, Hetian) city but that 12 among them were burned when the suspects fired explosives in their bid to fend off the police raid.
Fifty-four children were rescued and three suspects were seized during the operation in which three police officers were also wounded, state news agency Xinhua quoted a police spokesman as saying.
Xinjiang's Tianshan news portal said the 12 children were hospitalized with burns from a blaze triggered by the explosives.
RFA's Uyghur service contacted the emergency room of the Hotan district people's hospital at which some of the children were admitted but its staff refused to provide key details.
One medical staff said "all the children are fine" but on further questioning clarified that only "some of them" were at the hospital while others were at different hospitals.
The World Uyghur Congress, a Germany-based Uyghur exile group, accused the "armed" police of using tear gas in the raid on what it said was an Islamic school teaching children the Koran.
"What happened in Hotan is that armed Chinese personnel raided a Koran-teaching school where there were Uyghur youths," spokesman Dilxat Raxit told RFA's Mandarin service.
"Armed Chinese personnel used tear gas on the Uyghur youths. This is what led to clashes that resulted in injuries on both sides." he said. "The Chinese authorities try to eradicate people's religious beliefs. "
Raxit also said that police had arrested 47 people, including 11 women, in a crackdown following the raid, accusing them of owning illegal publications and disturbing social stability.
Controls on religion
Xinjiang is home to the mainly Muslim Turkic-speaking Uyghurs, who say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness despite China's ambitious plans to develop its vast northwestern frontier.
Hotan particularly has been the scene of numerous violent incidents in recent years.
No extraordinary security measures had been taken in the city following the incident, said one Han businesswoman, identified as Wang and living in Hotan.
She was unaware of the raid at the religious school.
Asked whether there were additional police personnel on the streets, she said, "No more than usual."
"There are a lot of police on the streets every day."
Religious activity is strictly controlled in the Xinjiang region, where children under 18 are forbidden from receiving a religious education or attending mosque.
Last month, an 11-year-old Uyghur boy studying at an unsanctioned religious school in Korla city died in police custody under suspicious circumstances, family sources said.
The sources said that Korla police told Mirzahid Amanullah Shahyari’s mother that he had committed suicide under their watch and forced her to bury the body immediately.
Official Chinese media reports, however, said that he died at a hospital after being beaten by fellow students at the illegal religious school.
The case also drew strong condemnation from the World Uyghur Congress, which called the boy's treatment “barbaric.”
Mirzahid had first been sent to another school in Hotan when he was seven years old, but the teacher sent him home out of safety concerns, the sources said.
Reported by Jilil Musha of RFA's Uyghur service and Gao Shan of Mandarin service. Translated by Jennifer Chou and Jilil Musha. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.