An exiled rights group has called on the U.S. envoy to China to raise human rights violations against the mostly Muslim Uyghur minority with the government in Beijing, two days after 21 people were killed in the worst episode of violence in the restive Xinjiang region in nearly four years.
U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke was visiting Xinjiang with a trade delegation when the clashes took place Tuesday in Maralbeshi (in Chinese, Bachu) county in Kashgar prefecture, and the U.S. State Department has called on Beijing to conduct a “thorough and transparent investigation of this incident.”
Chinese officials and state media said the violence erupted after community officials on patrol were attacked by Uyghur "terrorists" armed with knives at a house in Siriqbuya (in Chinese, Selibuya) township.
Reinforcements were called, and in the ensuing shootout six of the suspects were killed, state media said. Others were killed either after being slashed by the suspects or burned to death when the house was torched, state media reports said.
In total, 16 Uyghurs, three Han Chinese, and two Mongolians were killed in the clashes—the worst since ethnic violence between Uyghurs and Han Chinese rocked Xinjiang's regional capital of Urumqi in 2009, killing nearly 200.
The Washington-based Uyghur American Association (UAA) warned that Chinese media reporting on the incident should be “viewed with extreme caution” given a lack of details and independent verification, and urged the international community to dismiss allegations of a Uyghur terror plot.
The UAA called on Locke to raise any violations against the Uyghurs with the Chinese authorities and urge Beijing to find a “lasting political solution” to their grievances.
“It is vitally important for Ambassador Locke to remind the Chinese authorities that the constant attack on Uyghur identity, language, culture, religion, and ethnicity, as well as equating Uyghurs’ legitimate grievances with terrorism, separatism, and extremism, will not bring long-term peace and stability to the region,” said UAA President Alim Seytoff in a statement.
The UAA said that since the unrest of 2009, China had intensified its repression of the Uyghur people through “heavy-handed security measures” and the “arbitrary use of lethal force.”
It said that in addition to deploying anti-terror forces into Xinjiang following the clashes, authorities had also created “neighborhood watch offices” in areas of the region populated by Uyghurs, such as Kashgar and Hotan, to “spy” on the ethnic group.
“These offices were tasked to report any Uyghur from out of town or any kind of Uyghur gathering, even in the privacy of their house, to police or security personnel patrolling the area,” the group said.
“Subsequently, it results in an immediate unlawful house search by neighborhood watch officers and sometimes arbitrary use of lethal force by security personnel for any kind of resistance, causing the deaths of many people, with authorities usually labeling the Uyghurs involved as ‘terrorists’.”
New York-based DWnews.com quoted anonymous official sources as saying that Tuesday’s incident was triggered after three community officials discovered a “terrorist” group watching a “terrorist” video during a house-to-house search.
It said that the officials, who had also found a cache of knives, reported the matter to police who soon after arrived on the scene with the police station chief and a group of officers.
“When they arrived at the scene, they found the three officials killed. The police chief was the only one armed with a gun among his team,” the Chinese-language report said, without providing the police chief’s name.
“When his six rounds of ammunition were exhausted, the terror group used a 1.2-meter [4-foot] knife to kill him and the other policemen.”
DWnews said the group “burned down the house with the bodies in it,” adding that among the community officials killed in the clash was ethnic Mongolian deputy town mayor Sung Chao.
The Global Times, an official Chinese media organization, reported that the remaining police officers had taken eight men into custody during the incident.
It said the “terrorists may have set a trap” in luring police officers and to their home before setting upon them with knives, quoting local officials.
Chinese authorities often accuse Uyghurs of terrorist activities, but experts familiar with the region have said Beijing exaggerates a terrorism threat to take the heat off domestic policies that cause unrest.
The Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) maintained that the clash was sparked by the shooting and killing of a young Uyghur by Chinese security forces that fired into a crowd angered over the illegal search of homes.
And an eyewitness told RFA's Uyghur Service on Wednesday that when a Uyghur woman refused to lift her veil during a search of area homes, a neighborhood watch officer forced her to do so, sparking the conflict.
The United States on Wednesday urged China to carry out a full probe of the violence and "take steps to reduce tensions and promote long-term stability in Xinjiang."
"We urge the Chinese authorities to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation of this incident and to provide all Chinese citizens—including Uyghurs—the due-process protections to which they're entitled," State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters.
But China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying on Thursday said the U.S. was using a “double standard” for not outright condemning the attack while also recently suffering from an act of terror, and said Washington should “reflect on its own problems.”
Three people were killed and more than 260 injured when two explosions occurred at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15. Two young men, one of whom was killed in a shootout with police, are suspected of having carried out the attack.
“We are firmly opposed to the U.S. confusing black and white, right and wrong. Not only do they not condemn violent terrorist attacks, but they also make casual and irresponsible accusations against China’s ethnic policy,” she said.
“We hope the U.S. can respect the most basic facts and stop the wrong practice of using double standards. They should look at themselves in the mirror more often to see all the problems in their own country instead of making casual accusations against other countries.”
In Xinjiang, rights groups say that the Chinese authorities are indiscriminately jailing Uyghurs in the name of fighting terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism, and are intensifying the influx of Han Chinese in the region.
Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness.
Reported by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Dolkun Kamberi. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.