Authorities in northwest China’s troubled Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region have killed 17 suspects from three families, including women and children, they accused of carrying out an attack that left 50 people dead and injured 50 others at a coal mine, according to the government and local sources.
“All terrorists were killed on the 56th day of a ‘pursue and attack’ operation” in the region, China’s Ministry of Public Security announced in a Nov. 14 statement published on its website, referring to the action as a “great victory in the War on Terror.”
While the announcement, which was removed shortly after it was posted, did not link the “terrorists” to a specific act, the length of the operation it referred to suggested it had been launched in the aftermath of a Sept. 18 attack at the Sogan Colliery in Aksu (in Chinese, Akesu) prefecture’s Bay (Baicheng) county.
The attack, which was not reported in Chinese media, occurred when a group of knife-wielding suspects set upon security guards at the gate of the mine in Terek township before targeting the owner’s residence and a dormitory for workers.
When police arrived at the mine to control the situation, the attackers rammed their vehicles using trucks loaded down with coal, sources told RFA at the time, adding that at least five officers were killed in the incident, including a local police chief.
In the aftermath of the attack, authorities launched a manhunt for 17 suspects, consisting of the three men believed to have been behind the incident—Tursun Jume, 46, Musa Toxtiniyaz, 47, and Memet Eysa, 60, from Chokatal Meadow, in Bay’s Kanchi township—and their family members. Four of the suspects were women and three are children.
On Tuesday, police officers from Bay county confirmed to RFA’s Uyghur Service that “all of the terrorists,” including the seven women and children, had been killed in a raid.
“Yes, I received a notice from my superiors informing us that all of the terrorists have been killed and warning us to remain vigilant against a possible revenge attack,” said Exmet Abliz, police chief of Bay’s Qeyir township, adding that a large number of officers had been kept on duty following the raid.
“We were also warned not to hold any kind of celebration to mark the victory, and even not to talk much about it until the operation has officially been made public.”
Ghalip Memet, a police officer in Terek township, told RFA that authorities had set off an explosion to kill the suspects where they lay in hiding.
“I heard from colleagues who participated in the operation that the military blew up the cave where the suspects were hiding,” he said.
“That is why we were able to kill all of them with zero victims [from our side]. Seventeen corpses were gathered after the explosion.”
Ekber, the director of the Terek township middle school, which had been used as a base of operations for the manhunt, said teachers and staff had finally returned to classes on Tuesday after nearly two months.
“I received a call from the chief of the Bay county education department, who told me that the war had ended with a great victory—that all the terrorists had been killed and that we could return to the middle school,” he said.
“But I still have not received an official written notice, and the authorities have probably not decided yet whether to keep the raid secret or to disclose it.”
According to Ekber, authorities had only informed the public that they were to assist in the manhunt and to maintain a lookout for the suspects since the attack on the mine, and residents of the county were forbidden from discussing the incident.
“That is why I could only tell the teachers and students in my school, ‘The operation was completed, so we can resume work and study as usual,’ but I was unable to answer their questions about what happened to the women and children in the group, which was a particularly sensitive topic,” he said.
“Based on the warrant list, we found out that the 17 suspects included four women and three children, one of which—nine-year-old Munire [Memet, the adopted granddaughter of Memet Eysa]—was one of our second grade students.”
In addition to Memet, an unidentified six-year-old boy and an unidentified one-year-old boy—both from Tursun Jume’s family—were also killed in the raid, according to information about the suspects provided to RFA by local officials last month.
The four women suspects killed by authorities were Memet Eysa’s wife, 55-year-old Zorem Mamut; his daughter-in-law, 28-year-old Reyhan Musa; another daughter-in-law, 30-year-old Ayimnisa Rozi; and Tursun Jume’s wife, 44-year-old Meryem Abdurehim.
The other 10 suspects killed in the raid included Tursun Jume, Musa Toxtiniyaz and Memet Eysa, as well as their sons and one nephew.
A local official who provided the names of the suspects to RFA in October said at the time that neither the women nor the children had been involved in the Sogan Colliery attack and had only followed the other suspects when they fled from Kanchi township.
Ekber said that not only the students and teachers, but “all the people of Bay county” were wondering about the fate of the women and children on the suspect list.
“At this point, I don’t know what the decision on publishing news of the victory will be,” he said.
“It’s tough. The suspects [are believed to have] carried out the attack, but publishing details of the incident—including the death toll and what happened at the coal mine attack—could deepen hatred between the ethnic [majority] Hans and [minority] Uyghurs.”
‘Can’t convince the world’
A teacher from the Terek township middle school, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity, said the Ministry of Public Security would not have published information about the raid if the terrorist attack in Paris had not taken place a day earlier.
“The central government authorities wouldn’t have disclosed the killing of 17 so-called ‘terrorists’ on their website if the Paris attack had not occurred—the quick removal of the post also suggests this is true,” the teacher said.
China's tightly controlled state media has covered the Paris attacks in detail, including commentary calling on the international community to avoid "double standards" and take Beijing's anti-terror campaign at face value.
French President Francois Hollande on Monday vowed to eradicate terrorism, saying that "France is at war," following the attacks, for which the Islamic State has claimed responsibility and that left at least 129 dead and 352 wounded.
The teacher questioned how China could convince the international community that the four women and three children were terrorists, how it could validate the detention of more than 1,000 people as part of raids following the September attack, and how authorities could claim that forcing farmers to take part in the manhunt had been part of professional police methodology.
“The authorities can force us to believe their claims through the power they wield, but they can’t convince the rest of the world,” he said.
“That is why they dare not disclose the details of the incident.”
The ‘three evils’
China has vowed to crack down on the "three evils" of terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism in Xinjiang, but experts outside China say Beijing has exaggerated the threat from Uyghur "separatists" and that domestic policies are responsible for an upsurge in violence that has left hundreds dead since 2012.
Uyghur groups in exile say such attacks are likely expressions of resistance to Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang, where Uyghurs complain of pervasive ethnic discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression by China’s communist government.
Rights groups accuse the Chinese authorities of heavy-handed rule in Xinjiang, including violent police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Shohret Hoshur. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.