Violent clashes in China’s far-west province of Xinjiang, home to the Turkic-speaking Uighur minority, reportedly left 21 people dead in what official media described Wednesday as fighting between “suspected terrorists and authorities.”
The state Xinhua news wire said that among the dead were 15 field staff and police officers, in addition to six “suspects.” That story and an account carried by a government-run website in Xinjiang said the confrontation was sparked Tuesday after three official “community workers” reported the presence of knives and suspicious people in a house in Bachu County, which is about 750 miles southwest of the provincial capital of Urumqi.
While official outlets blamed the bloodshed on a series of events that began with the kidnapping of the trio of community workers, the Xinjiang website referred to the alleged attackers as thugs and as people planning terrorist activities.
A Uighur exile activist group gave a different version.
Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the German-based World Uyghur Congress, which uses an alternate spelling for the minority group, wrote in an email that the conflict Tuesday was fueled by the police shooting and killing a young Uighur man, whose age isn’t yet known. Raxit also said the area had since been locked down by a “large amount of armed personnel.”
Many Uighurs in Xinjiang complain that Beijing’s policies are, at the least, discriminatory toward their culture and Islamic faith. The province was the scene of brutal clashes in 2009 between Uighurs and members of the nation’s majority Han Chinese community, which by official account ended in 197 deaths, mostly of Han Chinese.
Beijing frequently blames violence in the region on separatist terrorist groups that receive foreign backing. Uighurs in Xinjiang, on the other hand, describe an oppressive environment that includes security forces ruling with iron-fisted impunity and an influx of Han Chinese displacing their communities and business interests.
“Have some components of the Uighur ethno-national movement used and espoused violence at times? Yes. Have there been anti-state and terrorist (targeting indiscriminately civilians) attacks over the years? Yes,” Nicholas Bequelin, senior researcher in the Asia division of New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in an email exchange.
But, he added: “Given the fact that the Chinese government systematically conflates non-state-sanctioned religious activities with religious extremism, and dissent with separatism and both with terrorism, it’s impossible to ascertain the veracity of the claims of the government in matters of terrorism.”
For the incident Tuesday, the Xinjiang government-controlled website listed the ethnicities of the police and staff killed – Uighur, Han Chinese and Mongolian – but not that of the alleged assailants, who presumably were Uighur.
According to Xinhua, after the trio of government workers called their supervisors to report finding the knives and suspects, they were seized by people in the house. When police and officials responded, “the suspects” attacked them, killed the three staff members and set the house on fire before police were able to get the situation under control by shooting the suspects, according to Xinhua.
“An initial investigation has indicated that the suspects are all terrorists who were planning on violent attacks,” Xinhua said.