Nearly all the members of a group of people detained by authorities in southwestern China near the border with Vietnam over the weekend are ethnic Uyghur women and children from China’s restive Xinjiang region, a source said Thursday.
According to state media, police in China’s Guangxi province on Sunday shot dead one person and detained 21 other “religious extremists” seeking to cross into neighboring Vietnam.
The report, carried by the official Xinhua news agency, did not identify the members of the group or say where they were from, but authorities in China frequently blame religious extremism for violence involving Uyghur Muslims from Xinjiang in the country’s northwest.
On Thursday, a staff member of a detention center in Guangxi’s border town of Pingxiang told RFA’s Uyghur Service that 17 women and children from the group had been taken into custody on Sunday—all of whom were Uyghurs.
“The detained Uyghurs are housed here in our facility,” said the staff member, surnamed Huang.
“All of the [adults] are females, no males at all. [Most have] kids ranging from one to eight years of age. Public security personnel from the Pingxiang police station are currently interrogating them,” he said.
Huang said he was unsure whether the detainees were religious extremists or not, adding that it was the first time Uyghurs had been held at his facility.
“I don’t know where the males are. There are usually two places—one for women and the other for men,” he said.
“The kids are fine. None are suffering from illness, but I’m not allowed to let the Uyghurs speak to you on the phone. All I can say is that they are eating the food that we provide them and occupying two cells—large enough to accommodate them.”
Huang said he had not heard anything about a male member of the group being shot dead by police, but added that he was unaware of how the Uyghurs were detained.
He said he knew of Uyghurs “doing business” in Pingxiang, but said he was unfamiliar with them or their culture.
Xinhua said Wednesday that police had received a tip the group would attempt to cross into Vietnam through Pingxiang and sent a team to intercept them.
Other state media reports said one member of the group had stabbed a police officer as they were detained on Sunday night and was shot dead by authorities.
The Associated Press cited a statement by the official website for Guangxi’s Chongzuo city as saying that police reinforcements helped detain the 21 others, adding that the policeman who was attacked was recovering at a local hospital.
Rights groups and exile Uyghur groups have questioned reports that members of the group were religious extremists and said Chinese authorities may have used excessive force in detaining them.
On Thursday, exiled Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer said the group included women and children, which indicated they were “escaping persecution to resettle in a third country.”
“China labeled these people as extremists even before investigating their situation,” she said.
“This is not something a country governed by rule of law would do.”
Reports that one of the members of the group had been shot to death by police officers “suggests that Chinese security personnel used excessive force” in detaining them, Kadeer said.
She questioned why state media reports did not include information about women and children among the group of detainees.
“The government is saying that these people are religious extremists, but they are using this kind of tactic to justify police brutality against Uyghurs and discourage sympathy for them,” she 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 Jilil Kashgary for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.