Updated at 11.15 p.m. EST on 2014-7-29
Chinese police in northwestern China’s troubled Xinjiang region have shot dead dozens of knife and axe-wielding ethnic minority Uyghur Muslims who went on a rampage, apparently angry over restrictions during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and the cold-blooded killing of a family of five, officials said.
The riots occurred in Yarkand (in Chinese, Shache) county in Xinjiang’s Kashgar prefecture during the Eid al-Fitr festival on Monday marking the end of the Ramadan fasting month.
It was one of the worst clashes in Xinjiang since bloody riots in the regional capital Urumqi in 2009 between Uyghurs and majority Han Chinese that left almost 200 people dead.
At least two sources said the death toll may have exceeded 50 but this could not be independently verified. One exile group claimed a dozen policemen were killed in the clashes.
The official Xinhua news agency said “dozens of Uyghur and Han civilians were killed or injured” during the clashes which came as Chinese authorities maintained an anti-terror campaign throughout Xinjiang following a spate of deadly bombings.
The riots began on Monday morning when groups of Uyghurs attacked a police station and government offices in Elishku township, prompting police to fire at the crowd, leaving many dead or wounded, local officials told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
An online post said more than 300 people attacked police “with knives, sticks, and their bare hands."
The riots then spread to three villages in Elishku where local government offices, Uyghur officials and Han Chinese were targeted.
Turghun Hidayat, head of one of the villages in the township, said he was informed at a crisis meeting that “some people attacked the township government buildings and police station” and that when police moved to restore order, the rioters “ran into the streets and attacked motor vehicles.”
Xinhua said 31 cars were vandalized, including six set on fire.
Alim Adurshit, security chairman of No. 14 village, one of three engulfed by the riots, suggested that the clashes were triggered by restrictions during the Ramadan month, including house-to-house searches by police in Uyghur areas.
“What I speculate is that the [rioters] did this in response to restrictions during the Ramadan,” he said. “There has been a lot of pent up frustration over house-to-house searches and checking on headscarves [worn by Uyghur women] during this Ramadan.”
Aytullah Tursun, head of No. 16 village, also one of the villages affected by the clashes, said the police killing of a family of five in Beshkent village near Elishku township on July 18 could have triggered the riots.
Police shot dead the family, including a seven-year-old boy and his 72-year-old grandfather, after one policeman was injured during a quarrel triggered by police screening of women wearing headscarves at a house.
“From what I know, they took to the streets to express their anger over the incident that happened in Beshkent,” Tursun said.
Internet services cut
Chinese authorities had cut Internet services in parts of Yarkand following the riots, an employee who answered the phone at a guesthouse in the county told RFA’s Mandarin Service.
Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the Germany-based exile World Uyghur Congress (WUC), told Agence France-Presse that more than 20 Uyghurs had been killed by armed authorities while 10 were injured.
He also said that 13 armed Chinese personnel were killed and injured, adding that about 67 people were arrested.
The Uyghurs were "resisting China's extreme repressive policy" when they were met with violence, he added.
WUC leader Rebiya Kadeer called on China to “maintain restraint and stop systematic repression," Raxit told AFP. "She is worried that China will use this incident to strengthen repression and cause even more people to lose their freedom.”
More than 200 people have died in unrest in Xinjiang in the past year or so, the government says, including in a May 22 bombing in Urumqi, which killed 31 people and injured 90, and which prompted the launch of an anti-terror campaign.
The U.S.-based Uyghur American Association (UAA) said it suspects that the dozens killed by police in Elishku on Monday “were in fact victims of extrajudicial killings.”
“As little is known of the circumstances of their killing, due to tight restrictions on information, UAA seeks an open investigation into the incident and the loss of dozens of lives,” UAA President Alim Seytoff said in a statement.
“China does not want the world to know what occurred on Monday in Elishku Township,” he said. “That state media could label the killing of dozens of people as in line with the law reflects the poor regard the state has for its own laws and judicial process.”
Seytoff said China’s newly launched one-year anti-terror campaign “promises only more bloodshed, as the fundamental causes of Uyghur grievances remain unaddressed.”
Many Uyghurs complain that they are subject to political, cultural, and religious repression for opposing Chinese rule in Xinjiang.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur and Eset Sulaiman for RFA’s Uyghur Service and Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma and Luisetta Mudie. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai and Luisetta Mudie.