Authorities in northwestern China’s troubled Xinjiang region have shot dead at least eight ethnic minority Uyghur “suspects,” according to local officials, after a herdsman raised an alarm over “suspicious” strangers gathered by a local riverbed.
The group had “suspiciously gathered” on June 10 at a river valley outside of Duwa township, in Hotan (in Chinese, Hetian) prefecture’s Guma (Pishan) county, prompting as many as 100 People’s Armed Police (PAP) officers to surround them, said Semet Emet, a police officer from Duwa’s No. 5 village.
“That day, a herdsman from No. 4 village saw a stranger came to the river valley to fetch water, so he reported it to us and we informed the station of the situation,” Emet told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
“The river valley was surrounded that afternoon. We heard gunshots and soon after we saw corpses being carried away. I heard the dead numbered around eight, but [later] I was told the total was 12,” he said, citing a conversation between local police chiefs.
He was unsure whether the PAP had tried to capture members of the group alive or “simply opened fire without any warning.”
Emet said he had heard the “suspects” were not from Duwa—information he believed to be true because no one in the town’s villages had been named as a relative and taken in for questioning by police, as often happens in similar incidents.
He said little was known about those killed, including whether they were simply passing through the area that day, were in hiding, or had traveled there to pan for precious metals in the riverbed.
“This river valley is rarely visited by people other than herdsmen, so our herdsman became suspicious and alerted us,” he said.
“We have been telling people that if they see any strangers they must inform the police or bear the consequences themselves, so the herdsman was just following orders.”
An officer from the Duwa township police station, who spoke with RFA on condition of anonymity, said that authorities were not among those killed in the incident, though he could not confirm the number of dead because his unit had only guided the PAP to the area.
“We know there was no one killed or injured on the police side, but we don’t know the numbers for the other side,” he said.
“[The PAP] did not allow us to get close to the scene, but we saw the bodies being taken to the armed police vehicles in black bags.”
The police chief of Duwa township, named Eziz, confirmed that the incident had occurred, but added that his officers had retreated after leading the PAP to the valley and established checkpoints on the perimeter.
He referred further questions to the Guma county police department.
Abdurrahman Ismail, chief of police for the seat of Guma county, told RFA that the incident took place around 30 kilometers (19 miles) outside of his jurisdiction and that his department was not dispatched to the area.
Ismail was also unable to confirm the number of casualties in the shooting, but said that he had been ordered to increase patrols and place his officers on alert in the aftermath.
“We have increased security in our own section and have been in a ‘war alert’ situation for the past eight days,” he said.
In February, Chinese authorities imposed an information blackout in Guma after at least seven people died and at least seven more were injured in clashes between Uyghurs and police, sources told RFA at the time.
A young Uyghur man reportedly set off an explosive device during the confrontation, according to a local hospital employee, though further details were unavailable due the clampdown in the area.
Last October, two Uyghurs went on a stabbing spree in Guma, killing three police officers and three government officials before they were gunned down by the authorities, local officials said at the time.
Abdurehim Tuniyaz, 25, and Ablikim Abdurehim, 26, may have been mounting a revenge attack over the death in police custody of one of their brothers, one source said.
China’s ruling Communist Party last year launched an anti-terror campaign in Xinjiang following a string of deadly attacks blamed by Beijing on Uyghur separatists 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.
Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness in Xinjiang despite China's ambitious plans to develop its vast northwestern frontier.
Reported by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.