Mystery clouds deadly clash in western China with 'suspected terrorists'

Some say that Beijing deliberately exaggerates the terrorist threat in order to justify the iron grip it keeps on the Muslim majority province of Xinjiang in western China.

A woman looks up as a dust storm hits Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, last week. Xinjiang, once a predominantly Muslim province in China's far west, has seen massive settlement by ethnic Han immigrants in recent decades.

Mystery surrounds official Chinese reports Wednesday of a violent clash between “suspected terrorists” and the authorities in the restive Muslim province of Xinjiang yesterday that left 21 people dead, including 15 officials.

According to a statement on the provincial government website, a group “planning to conduct violent terrorist activities” armed with knives seized three local officials who had surprised them in a house near the city of Kashgar (see map).

They then killed the three hostages and 12 of the policemen and local community workers who came to the rescue, setting fire to the house before armed police regained control of the situation, killing six of the suspects and arresting eight of them, the statement said.

The Chinese authorities have given only sketchy details of the incident, and have not accused any particular group of responsibility. Beijing has previously blamed Islamist separatists for earlier violent attacks on officials.

Xinjiang, once a predominantly Muslim province in China’s far west, has seen massive settlement by ethnic Han immigrants in recent decades. Local people complain that their culture and language are being eroded and that Han now outnumber original inhabitants, who are ethnic Uighurs, with linguistic and cultural ties to central Asian peoples.

Violence flares sporadically, despite a stiflingly heavy handed police and army presence. In 2009 almost 200 people were killed – mostly ethnic Han – in deadly rioting in the provincial capital of Urumqi. Last month the government announced that courts in Xinjiang had sentenced 20 men to prison terms as long as life for plotting jihadi attacks.

The men “had their thoughts poisoned by religious extremism,” according to the Xinjiang provincial website, and had “spread Muslim religious propaganda.”

Determining the truth behind such allegations, and incidents such as Tuesday’s clash, is difficult. Chinese media are not allowed to carry reports other than those by the state-run news agency Xinhua and foreign reporters have found themselves restricted and harassed when trying to work in Xinjiang.

A leading Uighur activist, Dilxat Raxit, who lives in Germany, questioned the official account, telling the AP that local residents had reported that the police sparked the incident by shooting a Uighur youth during a house search.

It was not clear how the suspects, armed only with knives, had managed to kill 15 policemen and local officials before they were subdued.

China has often accused a shadowy group known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement of being behind violence in Xinjiang, but foreign observers are dubious, with some saying that Beijing deliberately exaggerates the terrorist threat in order to justify the iron grip it keeps on Xinjiang.

The US State Department put the group on its terrorist watch list in 2002, but has since removed it amid doubts about whether the group is a real organization. 

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