The violence this week in a remote township in China's troubled Xinjiang region is believed to have been more serious than reported, with at least 46 people killed following an attack on police and government establishments by disgruntled ethnic minority Uyghurs, according to local officials and residents.
The official Xinhua news agency, quoting regional-level officials of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, had said that 27 people were killed in the "terrorist incident" Wednesday sparked by an attack on police stations and other government establishments by a "knife-wielding mob" in Pichan (in Chinese, Shanshan) county.
But based on accounts given to RFA's Uyghur Service by officials and residents as well as an "imam"— a local Muslim elder who helped conduct the burial rites for security personnel who perished in the clashes—at least 46 were killed in the violence in Lukchun township, whose residents are mostly minority ethnic Uyghur Muslims.
Imam Urayim Haji, 62, said based on pieces of burial cloth used at the funeral, he believed at least 35 security personnel consisting of policemen, police assistants and security guards had died in the incident.
“I saw and and counted a total of 35 pieces of burial cloth, so I believe the death toll from the side of the authorities is 35,” Urayim Haji said.
Between 15 and 20 of them belonged to the Han Chinese ethnic majority, he said.
Urayim Haji said the 11 assailants who were shot and killed by police had not been buried yet following the violence, some of the bloodiest since unrest in the Xinjiang capital Urumqi killed nearly 200 on July 5, 2009.
"Police are still keeping them. We don’t know whether or not the bodies will be returned to their families,” he said.
Local officials said all the 11 assailants were Uyghurs although they were unable to cite the reason for the attack.
Uyghur activists blamed the Chinese government's "sustained repression and provocation" of the Uyghur community for the violence.
According to Xinhua, the assailants attacked police stations, a government building and a construction site, and stabbed victims and set fires, killing 17 people including nine police or security officials, before officers shot and killed them.
Xinjiang is home to some 9 million ethnic minority Uyghurs, who say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination and oppressive religious controls under Beijing’s policies, blaming the problems partly on the influx of Han Chinese into the region.
A resident of Lukchun township, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the death toll was "over 40."
"I have received calls from our relatives in Pichan and they said they witnessed many of the injured being moved from Lukchun to Pichan county hospitals."
"They said they heard that the death toll had passed 40 (Wednesday night).”
Among the security personnel killed were people identified as Uyghur police officers Jappar Osman, 30, and Adil Abliz, 27, and police assistant Yehya Israpil, 21, according to a local ruling Chinese Communist Party official Alimjan Reqip.
He said one of three attackers shot and captured was identified as Abdulla Israpil, 28, who has been working as a taxi driver in Urumqi for several years and came to Lukchun just four days before the incident.
All four were residents of Muqam village in Lukchun township, a formerly sleepy melon-growing area.
Residents said security has been bolstered in Lukchun following the incident.
“I saw two helicopters flying as high as the tree tops. I've never seen helicopters so close," one resident said, suggesting that the aircraft had targeted a riverbed where some suspects might have been hiding.
The Lukchun incident came nearly a month after at least 12 Uyghurs were killed in a blast apparently triggered by explosive devices they were carrying while being pursued by police in Xinjiang's Aksu prefecture, local officials had told RFA.
The group was killed when they were cornered by police after they eluded a house-to-house search by police in Ghorachol town in Awat county, local town official Adil Semet said.
His account could not be independently confirmed. Residents of Ghorachol were reluctant to speak about the alleged explosion, saying that they feared for their safety.
A week ago, authorities in Xinjiang sentenced 19 Uyghurs to jail for alleged crimes linked to "religious extremism," Chinese media reported. Rights groups said the sentences were meant to send a message to Uyghurs in the lead-up to the upcoming Urumqi violence anniversary.
In April this year, a clash left 21 people dead after authorities allegedly uncovered a “terrorism plot” during a house search in Xinjiang's Maralbeshi county and squared off with a group of Uyghurs they said were armed with knives.
Rights groups say that the Chinese authorities are indiscriminately jailing Uyghurs in Xinjiang in the name of fighting terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism, and are intensifying the influx of Han Chinese in the region.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA's Uyghur Service. Translated by Shohret Hoshur. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.