Clashes between Chinese security forces and Muslim Uyghurs on the eve of the Eid al-Fitr festival last week could have been contained if the armed troops did not open fire at random, killing three and wounding about a dozen other civilians, including an innocent four-year-old girl, according to officials and residents.
Ten policemen were also injured in the clashes Wednesday in the restive Xinjiang region's Aksu prefecture triggered by prayer restrictions imposed ahead of the Eid marking the end of Islam's holy month of Ramadan.
The girl, identified as Subhinur Memet, who was injured in the leg, was among 13 people admitted to the Aksu No. 1 People's Hospital following the clashes in the No. 16 village of Aykol town, which occurred after the authorities prevented residents from one hamlet in the village from going to another to perform the Eid eve prayers.
"When the four-year-old girl was injured, people became very angry," Ablet Ghojamniyaz, secretary of the village's ruling Chinese Communist Party branch, told RFA's Uyghur Service. "It was difficult to disperse the crowd and they refused to back down."
As the crowd swelled to about 600 people, and with some in the mob hurling stones and bricks at the security forces, the People's Armed Police arrived and "started to shoot haphazardly," he said. "But I do not know what happened after that, because I was also running away."
Ablet Ghojamniyaz, who witnessed the incident, said tensions first erupted when government officials prevented residents from hamlet No. 3 in the No. 16 village from praying at the mosque in hamlet No. 2.
The residents forced their way through to the mosque, prompting Party cadres to call in the police who detained and took away two Uyghurs and returned to take several more into custody, he said.
"When the police herded four Uyghurs into a police car, the people surrounded the vehicle and demanded to know the reasons for taking them away on the eve of the Eid festival, triggering the clashes."
"The clashes could have been avoided if the cadres had allowed them to pray," he said.
Ablet Ghojamniyaz said that Aykol police deputy chief Gheni Osman handled the situation deftly and almost persuaded the crowd to disperse after assuring them that he would release the two who were detained earlier.
But Aykol police station chief Wu Guiliang, a Han Chinese, intervened and used harsh words, inflaming tensions, he said.
"When the situation was getting under control, Wu Guiliang arrived, shouting and hitting the people with his rifle butt. Then people started throwing stones and he fired shots in the air and to the ground," Ablet Ghojamniyaz said.
"The people did not back down and chased him [Wu] until he bolted from the scene."
The situation then spiraled out of control as four-year-old Subhinur was shot in the melee by the local police station personnel and as three other Uyghurs, including a woman, succumbed to bullet wounds on the spot after being hit by People's Armed Police and SWAT teams.
Subhinur's aunt, identified only as Ayimqiz, said her niece is recovering from her leg injuries.
"I went to see her at the hospital and she is bit better now," said Ayimqiz, the older sister of Subhinur's father, and chief of the No.16 village's women's union.
Subhinur's father has been detained, along with scores of others following the clashes.
In fact, No. 2 hamlet chief Ehet Mahmut said, "All the youths in my area have been detained" for questioning, without giving any specific number.
Only one of the three killed has been identified—Gopur Dawut, 27.
One of four injured woman, identified as Patem Turdi, 40, was shot while looking for her 15-year-old son, according to Ablet Ghojamniyaz.
Uyghurs in Xinjiang say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness, blaming their hardships partly on a massive influx of Han Chinese into the region.
Xinjiang has seen a string of violent incidents since June 26, leaving at least 64 dead in total, as the region marked the anniversary last month of July 5, 2009 clashes in the regional capital Urumqi between the minority Uyghurs and majority Han Chinese.
The rioting left some 200 people dead and 1,700 injured, according to official media reports.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA's Uyghur Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.