China on Wednesday accused terrorists in a Muslim Uighur region of attacking civilians, but an exiled Uighur group said the violence that killed at least 12 people mainly targeted armed Chinese personnel.
The bloodshed late Tuesday in the restive northwestern region of Xinjiang came at a sensitive time, ahead of next week's opening of China's national legislature, when authorities tighten security nationwide to prevent anything that would mar the annual session.
Officials and state media said the bloodshed started when assailants attacked civilians with knives on a commercial street in Yecheng city, killing 10 people; police fatally shot two of the attackers, the official accounts said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei called the attackers "terrorists" and said they attacked innocent civilians, "cruelly killing several of them in an appalling manner."
However, Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the German-based World Uyghur Congress, said that the violence in Yecheng — called Kargilik by Uighurs — erupted because local residents "could no longer bear China's systematic repression," and have been denied outlets for peaceful protest.
He said local Uighurs told him seven armed Chinese security personnel were killed and that three people were shot to death. He said two more people were killed but did not provide any detail of those deaths. He said 10 people were injured, including two seriously hurt, and that police have detained 84 people. Police have sealed off the area, he said.
The government has failed to win over Uighurs and other ethnic minorities through policies to boost economic growth and incomes as it increases police presence and controls religious practices to deter displays of separatism. China's ethnic Tibetan regions have also been unsettled in recent months by scattered demonstrations and clashes with authorities, as well as self-immolations in protest against the government's policies.
"At present, Xinjiang is on the path of a leap-forward development," Hong, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, told reporters in Beijing. "We firmly oppose a handful of terrorists and separatists in sabotaging the peaceful development, good order, and unity.
A Communist Party official in Yecheng county, who declined to give his name, said that aside from the two assailants shot on the spot, all the remaining attackers were later captured by police. He refused to answer further questions. Calls to police offices in Yecheng went unanswered.
Censors blocked postings about the attack on microblogs. Searches on Sina Corporation's popular Weibo service returned the message: "In accordance with relevant laws, regulations and policies, 'Xinjiang Yecheng' search results were not shown."
Sporadic attacks occur in Xinjiang — a region of oil and gas deposits, vast deserts, and towering mountains that abuts Central Asia — despite a smothering security presence imposed following 2009 riots in the regional capital of Urumqi in which almost 200 people died. The riots pitted Uighurs against migrants from China's majority Han.
Much of the violence has been centered in Yecheng and other oasis cities in southern Xinjiang, a heartland of Uighur culture. A group of Uighurs stormed a police station in the city of Hotan to the east of Yecheng on July 18 and took hostages, killing four. On July 30 and 31, Uighurs in Kashgar to the west hijacked a truck, set a restaurant on fire and stabbed people in the street. Authorities said 14 of the attackers were shot by police in Hotan, and five assailants were killed in the violence in Kashgar.
China says those events were organized terror attacks, but overseas Uighur groups say they were anti-government riots carried out by angry citizens. Uighur (pronounced WEE'-gur) activists and security analysts blame the violence on economic marginalization and restrictions on Uighur culture and the Muslim religion that are breeding frustration and anger among young Uighurs.
Chinese authorities have offered little evidence to back up their claims of outside involvement and rarely provide details on arrests or punishment of the suspects. Tight information controls and the remoteness of the area, more than 2,175 miles (3,500 kilometers) west of Beijing, ensure that the circumstances surrounding such incidents often remain murky.
The government has periodically closed unregistered Islamic schools and study sessions, seeing them as a wellspring for radical separatism. The World Uyghur Congress has said that authorities in Xinjiang's Aksu region in recent weeks confiscated hundreds of tracts and videos and detained more than 100 people.