Four ethnic minority Uyghur men armed with knives and explosives attacked a farmers' market in northwestern China's unrest-plagued Xinjiang region this week, leaving 22 people dead, including police officers and the attackers themselves, according to police Saturday.
The daring Oct. 12 raid on the majority Han Chinese Farmers Trading Center in Maralbeshi (in Chinese, Bachu) county in Kashgar prefecture has prompted a new security buildup in the region, where an upsurge of violence fueled by ethnic tensions has left about 300 dead in the past year and a half.
The four Uyghurs stabbed an unknown number of police officers as they stormed into the township market hurling explosives and attacking Han Chinese stall owners before they were gunned down, police officers in the Chongqurchaq and Konabazar police stations in Maralbeshi told RFA's Uyghur Service.
"According to the brief notice I received, a total of 22 people were killed, including the four attackers, but I have no idea how many police officers were among the 18 [victims]," Qahar Ayup, the chief of the Chongqurchaq police station, said.
Hashim Eli, a police officer at the Konabazar police station, said dozens of people were injured in the latest violence.
"The four men arrived in two motorcycles at the farmers' market at 10:30 a.m.," he said. "Two of them attacked police officers patrolling the street while the other two attacked the Han Chinese stall owners who were just entering the market to open their stores."
“Most of the business owners in the market were Han Chinese," Eli said. "The attackers carefully planned the attack to ensure that there were no Uyghur customers in the market."
He said the four attackers, aged between 25 and 30, were from Aksakmaral Township in Maralbeshi county.
Security stepped up
Police said security has been stepped up following the attack, which came two days after two Uyghur men went on a stabbing spree in neighboring Hotan prefecture’s Guma (in Chinese, Pishan) county on Oct. 10, killing three police officers and three government officials before they were gunned down.
“It's true we have placed the city on red alert after the violence in Maralbeshi," Obul Yasin, a police officer in neighboring Tumshuk (in Chinese, Tumushuke) city said.
"An emergency meeting has been held by Tumshuk City Police department and we have taken steps to prepare for any possible attacks here," he said.
China has accused "terrorists" and Islamist insurgents seeking to establish an independent state for the persistent unrest in Xinjiang, where an anti-terror campaign has been under way since May,
Uyghur groups have blamed the violence on heavy-handed rule, including violent police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people.
Rights groups warn that the strike-hard campaign in Xinjiang could further radicalize the Uyghurs into fueling more violence.
The Uyghur men who staged the Maralbeshi attack may have been frustrated by the jailing of more than 1,000 Uyghur youths in the county since May, when the authorities launched the anti-terror campaign, a retired government employee in the area said.
“The Maralbeshi incident was not even reported in the local media but almost all the residents in the county heard about it and know why this happened," he said.
Foreign journalists find it difficult to visit violence-wracked areas in Xinjiang, making it almost impossible to independently verify state media reports on the unrest in the region.
On Oct. 13, a court in Kashgar prefecture sentenced to death 12 people, all believed to be Uyghurs, blamed for attacks that killed 37 people in July, state media reported.
The official Xinhua News Agency said the court sentenced another 15 people to death with a two-year reprieve while nine others received life sentences. Another 20 people received terms of four to 20 years.
The sentences were linked to July 28 violence in Kashgar’s Yarkand (in Chinese, Shache) county in which police shot dead dozens of knife and axe-wielding Uyghurs who went on a rampage, apparently angry over restrictions during the Ramadan holiday and the cold-blooded killing by police of a family of five.
It was one of the worst clashes in Xinjiang since bloody riots in the regional capital Urumqi in 2009 between Uyghurs and Han Chinese that left almost 200 people dead.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA's Uyghur Service. Translated by Shohret Hoshur. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.