Twenty-seven people have been killed in new clashes in the troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang, official Chinese media reported on Wednesday, saying the violence was sparked by an attack on a remote rural police station by a "knife-wielding mob."
The authorities have imposed a security and communication clampdown in Lukchun township, Pichan (in Chinese, Shanshan) county where the incident occurred, and Uyghur rights groups accused Beijing of staging a cover-up and called for an independent probe into the circumstances that led to the killings.
Xinjiang is home to some 9 million ethnic minority Uyghurs, who say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination and oppressive religious controls under Beijing’s policies, blaming the problems partly on the influx of Han Chinese into the region.
"Knife-wielding mobs attacked the township's police stations, the local government building and a construction site, stabbing at people and setting fire to police cars," the state Xinhua news agency quoted regional-level officials of the ruling Chinese Communist Party as saying.
The clashes broke out at around 6:00 a.m. local time in Lukchun township near the Silk Road city of Turpan.
According to the official version of events, attackers killed 17 people, including nine police and security personnel, before police opened fire on them, killing 10.
It was one of the bloodiest incidents since unrest in the Xinjiang capital Urumqi killed nearly 200 on July 5, 2009.
An employee who answered the phone at a hotel in the Pichan county town said the clashes had quickly been suppressed by a large influx of troops.
"The army came here as soon as the main incident occurred, and suppressed everything," she said. "If they had let things drag out, it could have taken two or three days to sort out."
"The security measures are tighter today, with patrols and so on."
Dilxat Raxit, Sweden-based spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress (WUC), questioned the circumstances which led to the killings, saying the only public account of the incident was relayed by Xinhua.
"This claim that so-called 'civilians' [were killed] comes from an attempt by China to cover up the real issues about which the Uyghurs were protesting," he said.
"After the clashes, the authorities imposed an information blackout and cut off local access to the Internet, forbidding people to go outside," Raxit said.
He said police raids are continuing in the area, and "a large number" of Uyghurs have been detained.
"There are large numbers of security personnel in military uniform in that township and county," he said.
Police have launched an investigation, and three suspects are currently in detention, Xinhua said, adding that the authorities are still in pursuit of others who had fled the scene.
Three people were receiving treatment at a local hospital on Wednesday for injuries sustained in the violence, it said.
Separately, at least 12 Uyghurs were killed in a blast apparently triggered by explosive devices they were carrying while being pursued by police in Xinjiang's Aksu prefecture earlier this month, according to local officials.
The group was killed when they were cornered by police after they eluded a house-to-house search by police in Ghorachol town in Awat county, local town official Adil Semet said.
When police confronted the group near an area controlled by a semi-military unit 25 kilometers (15 miles) away, “some of them were arrested, some of them blew themselves up and others escaped,” Adil Semet told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party’s local committee “told us that 12 of the suspects were killed,” he said.
His account could not be independently confirmed. Residents of Ghorachol were reluctant to speak about the alleged explosion, saying that they feared for their safety.
Call for independent probe
The Uyghur American Association (UAA) asked the international community to push Beijing to provide details of Wednesday's incident.
“What we know about events today stems from information provided by the Chinese state media. This alone should give cause for the international community to seek more details on this incident,” said UAA President, Alim Seytoff in a statement.
“In order to ensure no violations of human rights have occurred, a full and independent investigation is required. The three men allegedly detained should be accorded judicial procedures that meet international standards,” he said.
The incident came nearly a week after authorities in Xinjiang sentenced 19 Uyghurs to jail for alleged crimes linked to "religious extremism," Chinese media reported. Rights groups said the sentences were meant to send a message to Uyghurs in the lead-up to the upcoming Urumqi violence anniversary.
A resident of Pichan county told RFA's Mandarin service that security in the formerly sleepy melon-growing town was now extremely tight following the incident.
"Now they aren't letting people wander around, and there's going to be an anti-terrorist sweep or some such thing," said the Han Chinese resident, who declined to be named.
"[All the officials and police] are out of the office. I think there must be tight security in place over there right now, given that it was such a violent incident," he said.
He added that around 80 percent of Lukchun's population are ethnic minority Uyghurs, who mainly farm vegetables and melons for a living.
He appeared skeptical of official claims that the attacks were the work of a terrorist group.
"The government is saying it was the work of terrorists, but nowadays, as soon as there's any trouble with the ethnic minorities, it gets lumped in with terrorism," he said.
"Maybe they had a rush of anger because some of their demands weren't met."
Repeated calls to the Lukchun township government, police department and police station went unanswered during office hours on Wednesday.
An officer who answered the phone at the police department in nearby Tuha declined to comment.
"I don't know about this," the officer said. "I am hanging up the phone now."
Raxit said local Uyghur sources had characterized the attacks as the result of persecution and provocation by police and government officials.
"There were no peaceful channels open to Uyghurs through which to protest," he said, calling on the international community to visit the area to gather more information.
"They should exert more pressure on the Chinese government, who we call on not to distort the truth," Raxit said.
"They should make known to the international community the factors surrounding this incident in a transparent manner," he added.
A Han Chinese employee who answered the phone at a business in Lukchun on Wednesday said the homes of Chinese migrants to the area weren't being included in police raids.
"There are a lot of police on patrol, but I'm not too worried," he said. "This wasn't a major incident. There are already a lot of police in Xinjiang anyway."
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Xin Lin for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.