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A deadly clash in China’s far-western Xinjiang Province on Monday left dozens killed or injured, according to Chinese state media accounts, as Chinese authorities enter their second month of a sweeping antiterrorism campaign in the region.
A short notice in the official Xinhua news agency said a “gang armed with knives and axes” attacked a police station and government offices in two towns in Shache County in northwest Xinjiang before police officers “shot dead dozens of members of the mob.”
The report, released more than 24 hours after the incident, gives few details and cannot be independently verified, due to journalists’ restricted access to the region. It says that the attack was an “organized and premeditated” terror attack and that 31 cars were vandalized.
Voice of America reports that the delay in reporting the news – and a scrubbing of social networks for references about Shache County – could be an effort to keep the unrest from spreading. In 2009, “online discussion played a key role in the outbreak of massive riots between Han Chinese and Uighurs that hit the capital” of Xinjiang, VOA reports.
Some reports indicate that violence did spread beyond the towns in Sache county. A French tourist told Reuters that he saw a dead body outside of a mosque in Kashgar, and saw armed police convoys heading into the city while civilian cars coming in were turned away.
Xinjiang, a resource-rich region on the border with Central Asia, is home to a large Turkic-language and Muslim Uighur population. Periodic violence has been attributed by the Chinese government to what it says are Islamist militants and separatists in the region who want to carve out an independent East Turkestan state.
Uighur supporters say the ethnic minority is suppressed by official policies that stamp out their cultural heritage, and that wealth from their natural resources is kept in the hands of the majority Han Chinese, deepening Uighur grievances.
China had tried to prevent Muslim Uighurs from fasting during Ramadan this year, issuing statements on the websites of schools and government agencies in Xinjiang ordering locals to avoid fasting in order to protect “students’ well being” and prevent “the use of schools and government offices to promote religion,” the Associated Press reports.
Clashes over the past 10 months have been particularly sharp, increasingly targeting civilians: China blamed Xinjiang separatists for a mass stabbing at a railroad station in Kunming in March and for killing five in an attack in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in October.
A bombing in Xinjiang’s capital city Urumqi in May killed 39 in what officials said was a terrorist attack.
Authorities announced an extended campaign against terrorism immediately following the May bombing.
In the first month of the campaign, which has increased an already strong police presence in Xinjiang, Chinese police arrested 380 terror suspects and jailed 315 in what the Monitor reported to be unusually fast sentencing:
Last Monday, 13 people were executed for “organizing, leading and participating in terrorist groups,” according to the state run Xinhua news agency. Three more were sentenced to death on the same day by an Urumqi court for an attack on Tiananmen Square in Beijing last October in which six people died.
The unusually speedy execution of justice over the past four weeks in Xinjiang has raised concerns that terrorist suspects may not be accorded even the flimsy protection offered by China’s legal system, which is heavily influenced by the government’s political considerations.
Prosecutors have been given a maximum of 48 hours to prepare terrorism cases, according to a “special campaign working plan” revealed earlier this month by the government owned Xinjiangnet website.