Bloody clashes in China's restive western region of Xinjiang that may have left about 20 people dead erupted after Chinese police beat to death Uyghurs involved in a peaceful demonstration, a Uyghur exile group charged Tuesday.
Official Chinese media, quoting officials in the region, called Monday's incident in the remote Silk Road city of Hotan a "terrorist" attack, saying authorities have beefed up security in the area following the worst violence in Xinjiang in about a year.
The People's Daily, which is controlled by China's Communist Party, raised the death toll from four on Monday to 18, but the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress said the figure was higher and disputed the official version of events.
The official Xinhua news agency quoted police sources as saying that "police gunned down several rioters who attacked a police station."
"They assaulted the police, took hostages, and set fire to the station," the public security ministry was quoted as saying.
But Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, said that at least 20 Uyghurs had died in the incident, while 12 had been injured, including four women and an 11-year-old child.
Quoting sources in Hotan, he said police first fired at a demonstration at the main bazaar of Hotan, in the Nurbagh area, where more than 100 local Uyghurs had peacefully gathered to protest a police crackdown imposed on the city for the last two weeks.
Demonstrators had gathered and demanded to know the whereabouts of relatives who had gone missing in police custody, he said.
"Armed personnel opened fire, leading directly to the deaths of six people, and injuring 12," he said.
"In the clashes that followed in the Narbak Street police station, the armed personnel opened fire and killed 14 Uyghurs," Raxit said, citing local sources.
The clashes erupted after a group of Uyghurs had tried to seize a number of police officers as leverage in their demands for the release of family members detained previously, he said.
Hou Hanmin, chief of the regional information office, maintained that the incident was caused by "terrorists."
"It is certain that it was a terrorist attack," he told Reuters. "But as for which organization is behind this, we are still investigating. The number of people killed and casualties will be announced soon."
The Global Times, owned by the Chinese Communist Party's mouthpiece, the People's Daily, quoted Hou as saying that the rioters "carried explosive devices and grenades."
Many Uyghurs—a Muslim, Turkic-speaking people native to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region—chafe under rule from Beijing and restrictions on their language, culture, and religion.
They make up less than half of Xinjiang's population after decades of immigration by the majority Han from other parts of China.
A Uyghur man, living outside of Hotan, said his friends based in the city had also described a story very different from that being reported by official Chinese media, beginning with an attempt at a demonstration.
"A bunch of riot police and armed police came rushing to the scene and took them to the police station and kicked and beat them ... They beat them to death," the man quoted Hotan Uyghurs as saying.
Reinforcements from the national counterterrorism office in Beijing had been dispatched to the scene, Xinhua said.
Raxit said police were now carrying out spot raids on Uyghur homes throughout Hotan city.
He said tensions had been simmering in the area since the arrival of Han Chinese migrants, who had taken over Uyghur farmland.
"This led to the Uyghurs losing their land," Raxit said.
"The people were gathering at the bazaar and had been planning to go to the municipal and district governments, when they were violently suppressed by the armed police," he said.
An officer who answered the phone at the Narbak Street police station said local people were being encouraged to inform on anyone acting suspiciously.
"That's right," said the officer. "The news has already been broadcast."
Asked to confirm the number of dead, the officer said: "You can find all the information on the Internet."
"Calm has been restored ... There is no martial law," he said.
But local residents said there was a marked increase in police patrols on the streets of Hotan, where 90 percent of the population are Uyghurs.
"Sometimes there are patrols and sometimes there aren't," said a Han Chinese resident of Hotan.
"The police have come to our doors and told us to be on our guard," the man said.
And an employee who answered the phone at a guesthouse in Hotan said all its rooms had been booked by the government following the incident.
"We have so many government guests right now," she said. "All our rooms have been booked up for tomorrow."
Raxit said police had detained around 70 Uyghurs following the clashes.
"Every road in and out of the Hotan area now has checkpoints on it," he said. "China's armed security personnel have also stepped up their detentions in the area."
He cited local residents as saying that a number of leaflets had appeared in neighboring Hotan county and Moyu county, calling for the release of detained and "disappeared" Uyghurs.
"A lot of the leaflets also called for independence," Raxit said.
He called on the Chinese government to release the full number of Uyghurs who had died and who had been detained in the incident.
A Uyghur health care worker who answered the phone at a local hospital said she had seen at least two seriously injured people arrive at the emergency department following Monday's incident.
"It was yesterday ... two people came into the emergency room ... One was a soldier," she said. "He was very young."
"I [also] saw one of the people that had been at the police station," she added. "He was bleeding very heavily. There was so much blood. I saw one patient with gunshot wounds," she said, before hanging up in a hurry.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service and by Ho Shan, Hai Nan, Bi Zimo, and Wei Ling for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.