Authorities in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region have widened a dragnet and are stepping up security measures in the wake of a stabbing attack that left six Han Chinese farmers dead last week, according to local officials, while ethnic minority Uyghurs say the bloodshed was prompted by discriminatory policies.
Security personnel shot dead a Uyghur man and captured five additional Uyghur suspects following the July 9 incident in Uchturpan (in Chinese, Wushi) county in Aksu prefecture in mid-western Xinjiang, according to police.
Abduweli Tursun, a police officer from Imamlirim township’s Yengisa village, near the site of the attack in No. 7 village, said that three other suspects were on the run.
Last week’s incident came as Chinese authorities pushed ahead with a relentless anti-terrorism crackdown following several high-profile attacks blamed on militants in Xinjiang, the homeland of the mostly Muslim Uyghurs who complain of ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness.
Yusup Abdulla, the chief of Imamlirim’s Yawash village, said authorities had employed additional security to protect the area’s Han Chinese residents.
“After the incident we rounded up 20-something Han Chinese residents of our village and moved them to our office building in order to protect them,” he said. “They will remain here until the suspects are all detained.”
“Altogether, about 200 Han Chinese residents in the whole town have been put under protection.”
Tursun Qadir, the manager of a gas station in Imamlirim, said that after the attack, police had ordered staff at sensitive sites to take stronger security measures.
“Right now, the gas station is surrounded by a metal fence, instead of the rope fence we had before. Also, we have blocked off the exit so that customers can only use the entrance,” he said.
“We have begun monitoring and listing the drivers who purchase gas from our station. Buying gas in separate containers is prohibited, and if someone wants to do so they must first get permission from the police.”
Motives for attack
According to residents, the Han Chinese victims of last week’s attack were new to the village and had come from four relatively wealthy families who owned large plots of farms in the county.
Earlier this week, the chief of No.7 village told RFA that the suspects went on the stabbing spree between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. on July 9, riding into the village on motorcycles and fleeing in vans believed to have been stolen from the victims.
The six farmers were believed killed on the spot while a woman suffered stab wounds and was taken to hospital four to five hours after the bloody incident, he said.
Residents and officials in Uchturpan county gave contradictory reasons for the incident.
One Uyghur resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity, suggested discrimination by the Chinese authorities on the Uyghurs.
He said that Han Chinese make up less than 5 percent of the village population in Uchturpan, but own nearly 50 percent of the total land.
“They are free to plant what they want on their farms, while Uyghurs are obligated to plant what the government wants, regardless of whether it is viable. Also, Uyghurs must take part in forced labor for two months out of the year, while Han farmers are exempt,” he said.
According to the resident, when water is distributed for crops in the area, Han farmers are shuttled to the front of the line ahead of Uyghurs.
“Actually they are not farmers—they are bosses, the authorities, enjoying a high standard life here through the grabbing of our land,” he said, adding that they wield power “because the government, banks, and police back them consistently.”
“Do you think it is possible to set up stability in such a place? I think that we Uyghurs would have to be blind and deaf in order to live in harmony and unity with the Hans.”
Ablajan Semet, a local village chief, said that the attack was likely prompted by Uyghur anger over Hans in the area.
“There are a few people complaining about everything, all of the time, so they harbor hatred towards the Han farmers because of the advantages they have,” he said.
“This hatred is likely to have provoked the attack, but that is no excuse. Most Uyghur farmers know that the Han farmers are innocent [of discrimination].”
Mutellip, the chairman of Imamlirim township, acknowledged that the Han population enjoys economic and technical advantages over their fellow Uyghur farmers, saying that “conflict is inevitable from time to time.”
But he called the July 9 attack “different,” in that it was “politically and religiously motivated.”
“Social and financial reasons are not enough to make a group ready to die for something,” he said.
“So this violent attack was led by people with extreme nationalist or religious ideology. Most of the Uyghur people are against it.”
Kurban Susiyin, the head of nearby Toksunyakotan village, said that two local residents—Merdan Tursun and Ablikim Ablimit—had been among three suspects captured in the aftermath of the attack.
“They were captured in desert area called Aqyar, between Uchturpan and Aksu,” he said.
“What I heard from the police … [was that] they brought helicopters and surrounded them with ground forces after they were located. One was killed and two were captured alive. I was told Merdan Tursun and Ablikim Ablimit were captured alive, but I have no idea which of the other suspects was killed.”
Yawash chief Abdulla said that of the two new suspects named in the incident, one was Yasim Kurban, from his village.
“Since the capture campaign was launched, we have been searching cornfields, rundown homes, water canyons, every possible location where people can hide,” he said.
“Right now, we have guards posted at the homes of the suspects’ relatives. We are conducting the search with the cooperation of the police.”
Beijing launched a “Strike Hard” campaign in May to combat terrorism in the wake of increasing violence in Xinjiang.
Exile Uyghur groups and human rights organizations say Beijing’s repressive policies in Xinjiang have provoked unrest in the region.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma and Shohret Hoshur. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.