Chinese official media reported on Friday that police killed 28 members of a "terrorist group" in the mainly Muslim Xinjiang region, following a two-month manhunt for suspects in a deadly coalmine attack in September.
The Xinjiang regional government's Tianshan web portal, in a posting that included photos of armed police dressed in black patrolling against the backdrop of a mountainous, snowy landscape, said the slain group had committed "a violent terrorist attack under the direct command of an overseas extremist organization."
Repeating a report that appeared briefly on China’s Ministry of Public Security announced on Nov. 14 before it was removed, Tianshan said the 28 were killed and one person surrendered, during a 56-day manhunt.
The manhunt was launched following a Sept. 18 attack at the Sogan Colliery in Aksu (in Chinese, Akesu) prefecture’s Bay (Baicheng) county, RFA's Uyghur Service reported shortly after that incident.
Death tolls differ
The Tianshan report, the first official confirmation of both the attack on the mine and the police response, put the number of dead in the coalmine attack at 16, including three police officers and two police assistants, with 18 injured.
Local sources told RFA, however, that as many as 50 people were killed in Sept. 18 attack, which was not reported in Chinese media.
According to the local sources, 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.
Friday's official report identified Musa Toxtiniyaz and Memet Eysa as ring leaders of the colliery attack. In comments to RFA in mid-October, local sources listed those two men and a Tursun Jume as top suspects, along with their families and said the suspects were traveling with women and children, including a one-year-old baby.
On Tuesday, police officers from Bay county confirmed to RFA that “all of the terrorists,” including the seven women and children, had been killed in a raid.
Ghalip Memet, a police officer in Terek township, told RFA that authorities had set off an explosion to kill the suspects in a cave where they lay in hiding.
Exiles question China claims
The Tianshan website did not address the question of whether women and children were among the 28 suspects killed.
Asked by RFA's Cantonese service on Friday about the presence of women and children, local security authorities declined to comment. Despite repeated calls to Bay county authorities, officials said only that the case had been solved.
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.
In response to the reported killings of the coal mine attack suspects and their families, exiled Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer told RFA's Uyghur Service the international community must call on Beijing to explain its handling of the case, including the two months of censoring the story and the fate of the women and children, and reject Chinese efforts to link issues in Xinjiang to terrorist attacks in Paris and elsewhere.
"It should be the first step for the international community to ask about the details of the 'victory' in war on terror mentioned in the official media in the wake of the Paris attack, and ask about the fate of women and children who followed the husbands and parents as a family members," said Kadeer, president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC).
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service and Lam Lok-tung for RFA's Cantonese Service. Written in English by Paul Eckert.