Chinese authorities in the southwestern region of Guangxi shot dead two ethnic minority Uyghurs after they tried to cross the border into neighboring Vietnam, official media reported on Monday.
China's armed police are also in pursuit of a third suspect who fled to an area near Guangxi's Pingxiang city, the semi-official China News Service report said.
It said local residents reported hearing gunshots near a highway toll station at about 8 p.m. local time on Sunday.
According to the report, the suspects attacked police officers after being forced to stop by two police cars.
Exile Uyghur organizations however said that Chinese authorities may have used excessive force against the Uyghurs fleeing a "campaign of terror" against the ethnic minority group, which claim to have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness.
A business owner from Pingxiang told RFA that tensions remain high in the border town on Monday, amid a strong police presence.
"There are police on all the intersections around here," the store owner said. "There are a lot of riot police patrolling the area, though not much is happening right now."
Blanket security operations
A resident from the nearby Tianxin Shenghuopian district surnamed Luo said the incident came after the authorities had been running blanket security operations in the border area in recent weeks.
Local residents are being asked to take part in the security checks, including the manhunt for the third suspect, Luo said.
"The government informed us, and we are prepared," he said.
He added, using phrases that sound similar to the ruling Chinese Communist Party's official line on the troubled Xinjiang region: "I believe that the majority of Uyghurs are good people, but that there is a very small minority of extremists, terrorists who are devoid of conscience."
"They carry out attacks on humanity."
He said police have set up security checkpoints at all intersections in the area.
"If we find him, of course we will inform the police immediately," Luo said. "We are close to the border here, and it's likely that terrorists and extremists use it as a route to leave the country."
Last month, police in Guangxi shot dead one Uyghur and detained a group of 21 people described in state-run media as "religious extremists" who had been trying to cross the border in Vietnam at Pingxiang.
But an employee of their detention center told RFA that the group consisted entirely of women and children.
Rights groups and exile Uyghur groups have questioned reports that Uyghurs trying to cross the border are religious extremists, saying that Chinese authorities may be using excessive force against them.
China's Ministry of Public Security last year set up a task force targeting gangs smuggling people across borders in the southwest of the country.
Since the group was set up in May last year the police have detained 352 people suspected of people smuggling, while a further 852 people were held for allegedly trying to cross borders illegally.
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC), said his group is extremely worried about Uyghurs who try to exit China in this manner.
"These shootings and killings are totally unacceptable," Raxit said in an interview on Monday. "The Chinese government is using every means possible to terrorize large numbers of Uyghurs who want to leave China."
"The authorities' claim that [the Uyghurs] have links with overseas terrorist organizations is politically motivated," he said.
According to Raxit, many Uyghurs are trying to leave China, even when their lives are at risk, because of "China's campaign of terror" targeting them.
"The Uyghurs who leave China are hoping to escape life under this reign of terror."
He said the authorities are encouraging local people in southwestern China to report groups of Uyghurs traveling together.
Travel controls for Uyghurs
Uyghurs are often placed under much tighter travel restrictions than other Chinese citizens, facing delays of several years in getting passports, local residents have said.
The Xinjiang region, which is home to millions of Turkic-speaking Uyghurs, has seen an upsurge in violence that has left hundreds dead since 2012, and which China has blamed on terrorists and Islamist insurgents seeking to establish an independent state.
But 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.
Chinese president Xi Jinping announced a harsh, one-year antiterrorist campaign in May, following a bombing in the regional capital Urumqi that killed 31 people and injured 90.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Lin Jing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.