Five police officers have been killed in a pre-dawn attack on a security checkpoint in China's restive far-western region of Xinjiang after government officials harassed ethnic minority Muslim women wearing headscarves and men with beards, according to police and residents.
Unknown assailants on Friday stabbed two police officers guarding the checkpoint in Qaraqash (in Chinese, Moyu) county in southwestern Hotan prefecture and then set fire to a room in the building where three police officers were taking a nap, police said.
Residents going for early Friday morning Muslim prayers discovered the two wounded officers and the charred remains of the three others in the room and alerted the authorities. The two officers died on the way to the hospital.
The incident followed several high-profile attacks blamed on militants in Xinjiang, the traditional home of the Uyghurs who complain they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness.
Local police described the violence in Kayash village in Manglay township as among the most deadly in the area in recent years.
“It was the most terrible incident in our town but I cannot give you details about that," Ablikim Yasin, chief of the Manglay police station, told RFA's Uyghur Service. "You should call the higher authorities for that.”
Manglay town chairman Shi Hongchang said the assailants struck at 4 a.m.
"The three police officers were sleeping inside, the two others were on watch outside. The group first stabbed the two who were guarding outside and then set fire to the room,” he told RFA.
Kayash village residents said the checkpoint was razed to the ground.
Lookout for suspects
Atawulla Qasim, chief of Kayash village, said the local authorities were helping police to look for the suspects who carried out the attack.
"There are still no clues about the identity of the suspects," he told RFA, saying police have found five empty bottles of petrol.
"The group locked the door of the room from outside after they stabbed the two officers, poured the petrol into the room through a stove chimney and then set fire to it," Qasim said.
"The officers were unable to get out," he said.
A resident living near the checkpoint said the violence occurred amid tensions in Manglay town, where police had detained and interrogated women wearing headscarves and men with beards two days before the incident.
"Just two days ago, this place was so busy," the resident said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The [police] were stopping, holding, or interrogating women who were wearing headscarves or men with beards."
Many Uyghurs say headscarves are a marker of Uyghur rather than Muslim identity. Chinese authorities, however, discourage the wearing of beards and headscarves, veils, and other Islamic dress in the region.
A Qaraqash schoolteacher said he was not surprised by the fresh violence in the county, citing what he called the heavy-handedness of Beijing's “strike hard” campaign launched throughout Xinjiang in the wake of increasing violence.
"I was not surprised when I heard about this incident," the teacher said, also speaking on condition of anonymity. "The ongoing 'strike hard' campaign, let alone other campaigns in previous years, is enough to provoke more serious incidents which we are seeing now."
"They do not do anything for stability other than just spreading hostility and hatred among society."
The Qaraqash violence came a day before police shot dead 13 people in Kargilik county in Xinjiang's Kashgar prefecture on Saturday after they drove into a police building and set off an explosion, according to reports.
The official Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region government website Tianshan said the 13 "thugs" crashed a car into the public security building in the county and detonated explosives.
Three police officers suffered injuries but there were no other casualties, the report said, without providing further details, according to Agence France-Presse.
Chinese state media reported earlier in the week that 13 people had been executed in the region for "terrorist attacks” in seven separate cases.
Xinjiang authorities declared a one-year crackdown on “violent terrorist activities” last month following the May 22 bombing at a market in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi that killed 43 people, including the four attackers.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA's Uyghur Service. Translated by Shohret Hoshur. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.