An exile group has questioned the Chinese government's account of a violent incident in the restive Xinjiang region last week in which nine ethnic Uyghur youths were reported killed, saying they may have been victims of "extrajudicial killings."
Chinese authorities and police had said that the nine were shot dead while storming the Siriqbuya (in Chinese, Selibuya) police station in Kashgar prefecture’s Maralbeshi (Bachu) county on Saturday in a possible suicide mission and that they had wanted to hoist a flag symbolizing regional independence at the station.
The authorities also accused the youths, who they said were armed with knives and sickles, of killing three policemen in the “terrorist” attack.
But the Washington-based Uyghur American Association (UAA) said that according to eyewitnesses it spoke with, the Uyghurs were gunned down when they went to the police station to protest against harsh security measures imposed in the area since April when 21 people were killed in clashes between Uyghurs and security forces.
“It is clear from our interviews with people in Siriqbuya who witnessed the entire incident that the Chinese government’s account should be treated with deep suspicion,” UAA president Alim Seytoff said in a statement.
“Given the account provided by the eyewitnesses, the Chinese police conducted a series of extrajudicial killings of Uyghur protestors that necessitate further investigation. We simply cannot accept the Chinese government version of this event and move on," he said.
He charged that state-sanctioned violence has been intensifying against the mostly Muslim minority Uyghurs, who have long complained of ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness in Xinjiang amid an influx of majority Han Chinese in the resource-rich region.
Based on accounts by three eyewitnesses, UAA said, police had panicked when confronting the Uyghur youths at the Siriqbuya station and that they had "fired on the protestors, killing an undetermined number of them."
In retaliation, some of the Uyghurs killed two of the police officers, UAA said, citing the eyewitnesses.
"The remaining officers withdrew inside one of the buildings comprising the police station compound and most likely called for a SWAT team. An unspecified number of the Uyghurs involved in the protest also sheltered in the police station grounds," UAA said.
Several Uyghurs who sought shelter at the station were also gunned down by the SWAT team, UAA said, adding that during the standoff other Uyghurs had gathered at the scene and voiced discontent with the police reaction to the protest.
Siriqbuya police station deputy chief Hesen Ablet had also told RFA's Uyghur Service on the day of the bloody incident that the shootout attracted a large number of Uyghur residents.
Some of them were angry with what they believed to be high-handed police action, eyewitnesses told RFA.
The residents pleaded with the police not to kill the young Uyghurs, saying if they had staged an attack on the station, they had done so because they were angry over the actions or policies of the Chinese authorities, the eyewitnesses said.
"There were around 40 to 50 people gathered around the station. They shouted to the police not to shoot, to capture them alive and try them," a Uyghur eyewitness said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"They were young kids, my heart is broken to pieces," said another Uyghur eyewitness. "Why were they so merciless to their own citizens?"
"The police, if they really have to shoot them, should have shot them in their foot or arms but not the head, and should have captured them alive. They had the opportunity to do that," he said.
UAA asked "concerned" governments and officials to question Beijing over "credible allegations of extrajudicial killings conducted by Chinese security forces in East Turkestan."
Many Uyghurs refer to Xinjiang, which borders Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the former Soviet Central Asian republics, as East Turkestan.
Xinjiang, which came under Chinese control following two short-lived East Turkestan republics in the 1930s and 1940s, has seen a string of violent incidents in recent years as Beijing tightens security measures and extends house-to-house raids targeting Uyghur families.
Deputy Siriqbuya police station chief Mahmut Dawut told RFA’s Uyghur Service this week that that the Uyghur youths accused of attacking the police station had carried the blue and white flag of the East Turkestan republics.
He said they were trying to take control of the station and fly the East Turkestan flag above it in emulation of a deadly attack in southern Xinjiang’s Hotan city in July 2011, when a group of young Uyghurs took hostages at a police station and took down the Chinese flag there.
The flag of the republics of East Turkestan continues to be a symbol of independence for many Uyghurs.
Reported by RFA's Uyghur Service. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.