Authorities in China's restive northwestern region of Xinjiang have shot dead up to a dozen Uyghurs and wounded 20 others in a raid on what they said was a "terrorist" facility, according to local officials and residents.
Police confirmed the shooting in Poskam county (in Chinese, Zepu) near the Silk Road city of Kashgar in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, home to some 9 million ethnic minority Muslim Uyghurs who say they have long suffered discrimination and religious controls under Beijing’s policies.
While police refused to give details of the incident, which had been kept under wraps for about three weeks, local officials and residents said it occurred in Jigdejay village around Kuybagh township on Aug. 23 during a raid on an alleged training camp and munitions center operated by a group of about 30 Uyghurs.
The raid came just three days after authorities in Kashgar's Kargilik (in Chinese, Yecheng) county gunned down 22 Uyghurs during another "anti-terrorism" operation on Aug. 20 while they were praying in a house at the edge of a desert area.
Nurmemet Tunyaz, the Jigdejay village head and local ruling Chinese Communist Party official in charge of "stability," said he was informed by local officials that six Uyghurs were killed and 20 others wounded in the Aug. 23 raid, but he and a senior local Islamic leader indicated that the death toll may be double the known figure.
A resident of Kuybagh township who witnessed the raid said that 12 people had died in the operation conducted by up to 80 security personnel.
"I do not know the details, but I have heard that they were making explosives and training in an excavated area," Nurmemet Tunyaz told RFA's Uyghur Service.
"We did not hear that any police were killed in this shooting. The injured suspects were transported to the county hospital but those killed were buried on the spot."
Some of the explosives in the camp were detonated during the raid, he said, which had sparked round-the-clock security patrols in the area.
Yasin Ahun-Karim, the leader of the Kuybagh central mosque, said he heard there were 30 Uyghurs in the group when the raid took place, 17 of them from Jigdejay village, suggesting that several others from neighboring villages may also have been gunned down.
"I heard that terrorists or separatists dug up a place near the edge of a desert in Jigdejay," Imam Yasin Ahun-Karim said. "They were hiding inside there and practicing how to make some sort of explosives. Their activities were discovered by a police helicopter, and police acted immediately to clean up the place," he told RFA.
He said he was given the information by Seypidin Ebey, the director of the village's United Front Work Department, an agency under the command of the Central Committee of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Officers in at least four village police stations in Kuybagh township, incluidng one who was on duty on the day of the raid, confirmed the shooting with RFA but refused to provide details.
A Kuybagh resident who claimed he witnessed the raid but spoke on condition of anonymity said that 12 people had died in the incident.
"That's right, they killed 12 people," the Kuybagh resident said when asked about the police operation.
"[They were] training. The police discovered them. It was daytime. We were just in front, standing there. We saw them firing their weapons," he said.
He said the camp was run by local Uyghurs and raided by 70-80 armed police.
"They had made a huge weapon," he said. "The armed police went and raided them, and that was that.... There were more than 20 of them, and 12 of them were killed. Those who died were buried [right there]."
He said the camp had been discovered after the Uyghurs had made rocket launchers that exploded on testing, killing one of them.
"One of them blew their own head off, or they wouldn't have been discovered," he said.
"[We live] on the edge [of the county town]. The Gobi desert is right next door to us."
An official who answered the phone at the county government offices declined to comment on the incident.
A Han Chinese resident of the regional capital Urumqi surnamed Zhang said local authorities frequently impose information blackouts on violent incidents in Xinjiang.
"They want to whitewash things so they can say Xinjiang is peaceful and harmonious," Zhang said.
"Also, if they reported all of these incidents of resistance, this could encourage other Uyghurs and maybe we would see even more of them."
Chinese authorities usually blame outbreaks of violence in Xinjiang on "terrorists" among the region's ethnic minority Muslim Uyghurs.
But rights groups and experts say Beijing exaggerates the terrorism threat to take the heat off domestic policies that cause unrest or to justify the authorities' use of force against Uyghurs.
Last week, the official Xinhua news agency reported that three ethnic Uyghurs had been sentenced to death for acts of "terrorism" in June in Xinjiang's Lukchun township of Pichan (in Chinese, Shanshan) county.
The punishments came about a month after Beijing sentenced two Uyghurs to death for their alleged links to another bloody incident in April in Kashgar prefecture's Siriqbuya township in Maralbeshi (Bachu) county.
Uyghur activists have blamed the Chinese government's "sustained repression and provocation" of the Uyghur community in Xinjiang for the two violent incidents.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA's Uyghur Service and Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated by Dolkun Kamberi, Mamatjan Juma, and Luisetta Mudie. Written in English by Luisetta Mudie and Parameswaran Ponnudurai.