Authorities in northwest China’s troubled Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region have identified 17 suspects from three families suspected of carrying out an apparent revenge attack that left 50 people dead and injured 50 others at a coal mine, a local official said.
The suspects are relatives of the three men who are believed to have been behind the Sept. 18 attack at the Sogan Colliery – Tursun Jume, 46, Musa Toxtiniyaz 47, and Memet Eysa, 60, from Chokatal Meadow, Kanchi township of Bay (in Chinese, Baicheng) County in Aksu (Akesu) prefecture, Eliniyaz Turdi, head of the Chokatal ranch unit, told RFA’s Uyghur Service. Four of the 17 suspects are female, and three of them are children
“I am sure that this incident was the direct result of our county enforcing campaigns [by the Chinese] to promote modern culture and expel extremism,” he said.
“I think we harassed them during the campaigns,” Turdi said. “Maybe they could not take it anymore. Based on the fact that they killed not only police officers, but also Chinese bosses and workers, we can say that they might have been poisoned by separatist ideology.”
All three Muslim Uyghur families showed signs of religious extremism, he said, noting that the women always wore head scarves and long dresses.
Local officials had to force Eysa’s relatives to participate in six campaign sessions, he said.
“Every time the family was not only forced to join, but also brought to our offices and educated,” Turdi said. “They were clearly irritated about this.”
At one such campaign to expel extremism, all Uyghurs were forced to dance, but one of Eysa’s adult sons refused, he said.
“He was grabbed by his neck and pushed to the middle of dance floor by the township’s Communist Party secretary,” Turdi said. “He glared at the secretary with anger and reluctantly danced.”
But another event that befell Eysa and his family may have been the breaking point.
Eysa had secretly adopted the illegitimate daughter of his hunting apprentice, Turghun Memet, without notifying the local government, Turdi said.
When word leaked out, town officials hauled Eysa into their office on Sept. 7 for three days of “political education,” he said.
“When the education did not prove to be effective, we fined him 2,500 yuan [U.S. $393] and took him to Kanchi township’s legal and political office to educate him for 15 days.”
But because there was no space for Eysa in the township police detention center or county jail, he was let go on a parole on Sept. 10 and carried out the attack eight days later, Turdi said.
The three families are some of the wealthiest people in the township and own cars, hundreds of sheep, tractors, motorcycles and large single-family homes, he said.
“It is certain they will be captured, but the police did not inform us about the details of case,” he said. “The police have ordered us to give the suspects two minutes to surrender; otherwise, we are to dispose of them.”
Still at large
Local authorities and farmers have been searching for the suspects and their relatives who are still at large.
A local herder spotted the families on the day of the attack around 7:30 a.m., as they walked along a stream heading to the mountains with women and children who were riding horses and donkeys, Turdi said.
“Some animals were carrying loads of stuff that might have been their food and other items,” he said. “Some of them were carrying guns, swords and bows and covered with blood. The blood might have been the blood of the Han Chinese workers they killed.”
The families knew the mountainous areas with their steep cliffs and vast coverage of pine trees like the “backs of their hands,” he said.
“They are hunters and very sharp shooters, and one of them is a veteran,” he said. “So, they can live off deer and other animals if they want to.”
Ebey Tomur, chief of Kanchi’s No. 2 village, said the township’s party secretary called it “shameful” that the three main suspects were from Kanchi, during a township government meeting about the attack on Tuesday.
“We have to clear our township’s image by helping with their capture or dispose of them during any raid operations by armed forces,” the party secretary said.
The families vacated their homes and vanished just after the attack, the party secretary said, adding that anyone who provided information on the whereabouts of the three could receive a reward of 200,000-500,000 yuan (U.S. $31,500-78,800).
He also encouraged anyone who had aided and abetted the suspects to come forward voluntarily and report their “mistake.”
“This is a good opportunity for anyone who has breached the law knowingly or unknowingly to avoid heavy punishment,” he said, according to Tomur.
Tayir Nur, chief of Kanchi’s No. 1 village, said that ever since the day of the attack, at least 20,000 farmers from villages in each of the country’s 14 townships had been taking turns guarding local offices, mosques schools and businesses around the clock.
An additional 50,000 farmers are participating in search operations in the mountains and on farmland, he said.
“Of course, some farmers complain about losing time that they normally would be devoting to their production operations, but we managed to convinced them that stability in the region overrides everything else,” Nur said.
Authorities issued a notice last week that farmers should inspect all abandoned and dilapidated houses and animal pens in the villages, he said.
“It seems that the authorities have lost some hope with the mountain and grassland searches,” Nur said. “We also keep telling the Han Chinese immigrants in the villages not to be afraid of the situation and that peace and stability will soon be recovered.”
The group of knife-wielding attackers set upon security guards at the entrance to the Sogan Colliery, which consists of three separate coal mine shafts in Terek township around 3 a.m. on Sept. 18.
They then targeted the mine owner’s residence and a six-story workers’ dormitory housing 300-400 workers, about 90 percent of whom are Han Chinese, according to official sources.
When police arrived at the mine, the attackers rammed their vehicles with trucks loaded with coal, killing at least five officers, including a local police chief, sources said.
China has vowed to crack down on the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism in Xinjiang, but experts outside China say Beijing has exaggerated the threat from Uyghur “separatists” and that domestic policies are responsible for an upsurge in violence that has left hundreds dead since 2012.
Rights groups accuse the Chinese authorities of heavy-handed rule in Xinjiang, including violent police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Mamajan Juma and Shohret Hoshur. Written in English by Rosanne Gerin.