Clashes in tightly-controlled Muslim region of China leave 27 dead

The simmering conflict in China's western province of Xinjiang boiled over again Wednesday, with state media reporting 27 people died in the latest violence to hit the largely Muslim region.

A new outbreak of violence in China's far-western Xinjiang region, home to its Muslim Uighur minority, has left 27 people dead, according to state reports – the area's deadliest unrest since 2009.

According to state media, "riots" broke out in Lukqun, a township about 120 miles southeast of the regional capital, Urumqi, during which police opened fire on "knife-wielding mobs," reports Agence France-Presse.

Police shot at "mobs" who had attacked police stations, a local government building and a construction site, the Xinhua news agency said, citing local officials.

"Seventeen people had been killed ... before police opened fire and shot dead 10 rioters," it said. The mobs were also "stabbing at people and setting fire to police cars", the report said.

Nine police or security guards and eight civilians were killed before police opened fire, the report said, adding that three other people were taken to hospital with injuries.

AFP adds that Xinhua did not explain the cause of the violence, and that state officials were unresponsive to requests for comment.

The Associated Press reports:

A man in Lukqun contacted by phone said the area has been cordoned off and armed police officers were posted at road intersections. Police, anti-riot forces and paramilitary police were patrolling the town armed with pistols and machine guns, said the man, who refused to give his name out of fear of government reprisals.

“People are not being allowed to walk around on the streets,” he said before disconnecting the call.

Uighur activist Dilxat Raxit, based in Germany, issued a statement saying the violence was caused by China's “sustained repression and provocation” of the Uighur community.

Such events are not uncommon in Xinjiang, however, nor is the state's silence about them. The Christian Science Monitor reported just two months ago, after a similar clash between knife-wielding "suspected terrorists" and local authorities left 21 people dead, that "violence flares sporadically" in the region between its native population and job-seeking immigrants from China's Han majority. The worst instance occurred in 2009, when almost 200 people, mostly Han, were killed in riots across Urumqi.

Chinese officials have claimed in the past that such attacks were the work of Islamic separatists, and have attempted to quell outbreaks with a massive security presence in the region. But the native population says the problems run deeper.

"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," the Monitor's Peter Ford reported.

Ultimately, it is difficult to determine precisely what is happening in Xinjiang, Mr. Ford wrote in March 2012, because of the tight restrictions the Chinese authorities keep on media in the region. Writing after yet another attack by "violent mobs" that left 12 dead, he wrote that "the authorities have been largely successful in hiding what has been going on from outsiders."

The obvious way for a foreign reporter to find out what is really happening in Xinjiang or [the Tibetan region of] Sichuan would be to go there and talk to people. But that is not as easy as it sounds.

We are allowed to go to Xinjiang, but when I reported from there I found very few Uighurs brave enough to risk the punishment they feared if they were found to have talked to me. Never, in 30 years of reporting from five continents, have I found it so difficult to be a journalist. And after my return to Beijing, I discovered that plainclothes policemen had secretly followed me every step of my weeklong trip. ...

So the world is heavily dependent for news from such places on government-sanctioned reports from the official Chinese news agency, whose reports seem designed to obfuscate rather than clarify, and on exile groups who clearly have their own political agenda, however well-meaning they are.

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