By Sabrina Mao and Sui-Lee Wee | Reuters – July 19, 2011
BEIJING (Reuters) - A clash at a police station that left at least four
people dead in western China's restive Xinjiang region was "a terrorist
attack," a government official said on Tuesday, but an exile Uighur group
accused police of firing on peaceful protesters.
Police in the desert city of Hotan "gunned down" several rioters who
attacked a police station, Xinhua said on Tuesday, the worst violence
Xinjiang has experienced in about a year.
But a Germany-based exile group, World Uyghur Congress, disputed the
official account. It said 20 Uighurs were killed -- 14 were beaten to
death and 6 shot dead -- and 70 arrested when police opened fire on a
peaceful protest, leading to fighting between the two sides.
The two accounts could not be independently resolved on Tuesday.
Beijing, wary of instability and the threat to the Communist Party's grip
on power, often blames what it calls violent separatist groups in Xinjiang
for attacks on police or other government targets, saying they work with
al Qaeda or Central Asian militants to bring about an independent state
called East Turkestan.
"It is certain that it was a terrorist attack," Hou Hanmin, chief of the
regional information office, told Reuters by telephone. "But as for which
organization is behind this, we are still investigating. The number of
people killed and casualties will be announced soon."
Many Uighurs -- a Muslim, Turkic-speaking people native to the region --
chafe under rule from Beijing and restrictions on their language, culture
and religion. They make up less than half of Xinjiang's population after
decades of immigration by the majority Han from other parts of China.
The Global Times, a popular tabloid owned by the Chinese Communist Party's
mouthpiece, the People's Daily, quoted Hou as saying that the rioters
"carried explosive devices and grenades."
"They first broke into the offices of the local administration of industry
and commerce and the taxation bureau that are close to the police
station," the report cited Hou as saying. "They injured two persons there.
"When they realized the targets were wrong, they started to attack the
police station from the ground floor to the second floor where they showed
a flag with separatist messages," Hou was quoted as saying.
The attackers set the police station on fire before killing hostages
during a stand-off with armed police, she was quoted as saying.
State television said the latest incident took place when a mob attacked a
police station, taking hostages and setting it on fire.
Two hostages, a paramilitary policeman and a guard died in the violence,
as well as several of the attackers, it reported. Six hostages were freed.
The Global Times said the national counter-terrorism office had dispatched
a team to Xinjiang.
Calls to the governments of Xinjiang and Hotan and the ministry of public
security went unanswered.
Dilxat Raxit of the World Uyghur Congress said he believes the death toll
and the number of injured are likely to escalate.
"In order to avoid a further destabilization of the situation, the Chinese
authorities should immediately stop the systematic repression," he said in
Hotan, also known as Khotan, is a Uighur-majority town that stretches
along the ancient Silk Route and lies on the edge of Xinjiang's forbidding
Many residents in Khotan, a largely devout city of some 300,000 people,
have expressed a desire to make the pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city of
Mecca, and unhappiness with restrictions on the number of pilgrims
permitted to do so.
In March 2008, hundreds marched through the weekly bazaar in a protest the
city government blamed on ethnic separatists.
Chinese censors blocked searches on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter-like
microblogging services, on the attack. Search results for the Chinese
renderings of "Xinjiang unrest" and "Hotan" showed a page that said,
"according to relevant laws, regulations and policies, search results are
A vast swath of territory, accounting for one-sixth of China's land mass,
Xinjiang holds oil, gas and coal deposits and borders Afghanistan,
Pakistan, India and Central Asia.
In July 2009, Xinjiang's capital Urumqi was rocked by violence between
majority Han Chinese and minority Uighurs that killed nearly 200 people.
Since then, China has executed nine people it blamed for instigating the
riots, detained and prosecuted hundreds and ramped up spending on
security, according to state media and overseas rights groups.
China has earmarked billions of dollars for the relatively poorer southern
part of Xinjiang, where Hotan is located, to try to soothe income
disparities that have contributed to ethnic violence.
(Editing by Ken Wills)