Updated at 8:10 p.m. ET on 2013-12-16
Police have shot dead 14 Uyghurs in China's troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang in killings condemned by an exile group as state-sponsored violence against the ethnic minority group.
Chinese state media said the 14 were part of a "violent terror gang" which attacked police with explosives as they tried to apprehend "criminal" suspects in Kashgar prefecture's Konasheher (in Chinese, Shufu) county on Sunday.
But the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) said the incident was the latest of a string of killings by Chinese security forces of "demonstrators" in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region "in what is becoming a new trend of state sponsored violence."
Chinese state-controlled regional news website Tianshan reported that police were trying to detain "criminal suspects" in Konasheher's Saybagh (in Chinese, Sayibage) village when they were set upon by a "mob" that threw explosives and attacked them with knives.
Two police officers were killed in the clashes, it said, adding that two people had also been detained over the violence.
"Police responded decisively," the government said in a brief statement, while the official Xinhua news agency said "terrorists" were responsible but gave no further details.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying confirmed the Tianshan news report at a regular news briefing in Beijing on Monday, saying the latest violence in Xinjiang "showed the true face of violent terror."
In recent months, dozens of Uyghurs accused of terrorism have been shot dead in lightning raids in Xinjiang, home to some 10 million mostly Muslim 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.
Rights groups and experts say Beijing exaggerates the terrorism threat to take the heat off domestic policies that cause unrest or to justify the authorities' use of force against Uyghurs.
The WUC said it has been able to ascertain from sources on the ground that two of the Uyghurs killed were teenagers as a result of "indiscriminate shooting by the security forces."
“This further indicates, as in previous instances, that the Chinese security forces show no concern for the safety and well being of demonstrators, rather choosing to shoot first, and ask questions later,” WUC President Rebiya Kadeer said in a statement.
The WUC said it has not uncovered the reasons for which the demonstrators were protesting but suggested that the protest stemmed from the recent launch of new restrictions on religious observance and "extra-judicial killings of hundreds of Uyghurs, including youths, some of whom were buried without notifying their next of kin."
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the WUC, said Uyghurs in Xinjiang were banned from gathering in groups, and were frequently subjected to house-to-house searches, adding to simmering resentment of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
"There is a strict ban imposed by China on gatherings of Uyghurs, and if they do gather together, then a squad of armed personnel raids their home and subjects them to violent dispersal and searches," Raxit said. "If these searches are overly provocative, they can give rise to clashes, during which the authorities open fire," he said.
Uyghur residents in Saybagh said among those killed was the local police station chief and several members of one Uyghur family. This could not be independently confirmed.
" I have heard that the police shot dead all the people in a Uyghur family," the resident, speaking on condition of anonymity, told RFA's Uyghur Service. "We heard this from a resident where the killing had happened."
Another resident, also speaking anonymously, said, "We have heard that the station chief Memet Sidiq had been killed in incident."
An officer at the police station in Oghusaq, a town adjacent to Saybagh, said they were not authorized to discuss the violence.
Security beefed up
Meanwhile, Chinese authorities have stepped up security in Konasheher.
"It's very dangerous," a Han Chinese resident of Konasheher told RFA's Mandarin Service on Monday. "There were real guns and real bullets."
An employee who answered the phone at the local electricity station said police had stepped up security patrols in the wake of Sunday's incident.
"There are a lot more police on the streets now," the employee said. "They are carrying guns and there are very tight security checks for both Han Chinese and Uyghurs."
"They are pulling over vehicles large and small for security checks, very strict checks," he added. "Everyone here at work is talking about this incident."
Schools in the area had been ordered to step up security measures in the wake of the clashes, according to the principal of Konasheher's Zhongxin Elementary School.
"The education bureau had a meeting and told us all to make sure our basic security was in place," the principal said.
An official who answered the phone at the Konasheher county government declined to comment, however.
"I can't answer questions like that," the official said. "You'll have to ask the police."
Reported by Shohret Hoshur and Eset Sulaiman for RFA's Uyghur Service, Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service and Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma and Luisetta Mudie. Written in English by Luisetta Mudie and Parameswaran Ponnudurai.