Chinese authorities said Friday that 11 people, believed to be ethnic minority Uyghurs, were killed when they allegedly attacked a police patrol in the latest deadly violence in northwestern China’s restive Xinjiang region.
Calling them terrorists, the official Xinhua news agency said eight were shot dead by police while three others were killed by several liquefied natural gas cylinders in their car which they had attempted to use as “suicide bombs” in the incident in Aksu prefecture’s Uchturpan (in Chinese, Wushi) county.
Sources in the area told RFA’s Uyghur Service that a curfew had been imposed in the area amid tight security.
Exile rights groups have suggested that the attack could be retaliation for a sweeping security crackdown against Uyghurs in recent months in Xinjiang.
According to official figures about 100 people are believed to have been killed since April last year—many of them Uyghurs accused by the authorities of terrorism and separatism.
The World Uyghur Congress blamed the latest incident on what it called China's “violent” policies in Xinjiang, home to 10 million mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uyghurs.
"Chinese armed officers' violent rooting out and provocation are the reason for Uighur resistance," World Uyghur Congress spokesman Dilxat Raxit said in an emailed statement to international news agencies.
"The so-called terrorism is China's political excuse of directly shooting dead those who take a stand," he said.
Xinhua cited police as saying that in the Uchturpan incident, the Uyghurs were riding motorbikes and cars and were armed with explosive devices and knives when they confronted a police team as they prepared to go on patrol near a park around 4:00 p.m.
Two civilians and two police officers were injured in the raid, it said, adding that one suspect had been captured.
It said five police vehicles were damaged or destroyed during the incident.
Uchturpan county police and government officials refused to talk to RFA’s Uyghur Service, but an employee at the county’s public credit office confirmed the incident and said that he had heard the attackers were Uyghurs.
“Yes, this incident occurred in a place called Tokuzak, close to the county center,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“We heard that the people who attacked the police might have been Uyghurs, but I do not know the details at all.”
The employee said that he was unsure how many people had died during the attack and that authorities had stepped up security in the aftermath of the incident, blocking the flow of information.
“The TV and cable signals were cut off for two hours … We also lost power for a while, so we could not use the TV, radio, or telephone and we were unable to get more information,” he said.
“There is a curfew being enforced right now and we are standing on guard at our work station.”
A resident of Uchturpan, who also asked that RFA not use his name, confirmed that the area was currently in the midst of a clampdown by authorities.
“Yes, this incident took place today at a location very close to my home,” he said.
“[The authorities] enforced a curfew and we are not allowed to go outside. A while ago, I saw numerous armed police blocking the street and not allowing anybody to pass. I do not know any other details.”
A doctor at the county hospital said the medical center had been “involved with what happened,” but said he had not been given any details about the incident.
“We were firmly ordered to stay at our work stations and to carry out our duties, but we were not informed about the incident,” he said.
“We received information about the shooting from outside sources. I do not know if it was reported on the radio, TV, or other media.”
The doctor said he had been told that a curfew was in effect for the area.
String of attacks
In recent violence in Aksu, a Uyghur village secretary for the ruling Chinese Communist Party, who was known for supporting strict pro-government policies, was stabbed to death on Jan. 22 by “separatists” acting on behalf of Uyghurs languishing in jail for unknown offenses, authorities said.
In a separate incident a week later in a neighboring village, police conducting house-to-house security checks shot and killed a Uyghur father of two, saying he refused to allow them into his home.
Aksu was also the site of a “separatist” attack on Jan. 15 by three Uyghurs on a police station which ended when authorities shot the men dead.
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.
Uyghur exile groups say Chinese authorities in Xinjiang have launched a New Year “strike hard” campaign targeting cell phones, computers, religious materials, and other “cultural products” belonging to Uyghurs.
Raxit told RFA last month that the government has been “stepping up these raids, even to the point of armed police shooting Uyghurs who refuse to cooperate and offer some kind of resistance.”
He warned that “any provocation could lead to further violence.”
Xinhua reported that “some 190 terrorist attacks were recorded in Xinjiang in 2012, increasing by a significant margin from 2011.”
Reported by Eset Sulaiman for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.