Deadly clashes in China results in 21 dead

China-Clashes-Uighur-police_2544652bClashes between police and a gang of suspected terrorists in China’s restive northwest region of Xinjiang killed 21 people Tuesday, state media and local government reported Wednesday. The dead include 15 police officers and community workers. Six assailants are also deceased, while eight other assailants were captured alive, Xinhua news agency said.

The confrontations, which included use of knives, axes, guns and arson, offered a deadly reminder of long-simmering ethnic tensions in China’s huge slice of Central Asia. The incident marks Xinjiang’s worst case of ethnic violence since rioting in July 2009 between Uighurs and Han killed nearly 200 people, mostly Han, in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi.

The region’s indigenous Uighur population, a Turkic-speaking Muslim people, have long complained of ethnic discrimination and losing out economically to the large influx of Han Chinese immigrants. Beijing claims that separatist forces, supported from outside China, employ terrorist tactics in pursuit of independence for Xinjiang, whose vast deserts contain significant natural gas and oil resources.

The incident began Tuesday afternoon when three community workers called on a house in Bachu county, called Maralbexi county in Uighur, outside Kashgar, China’s westernmost city, said a report on the state-run Tianshan news website that was also carried on the Xinjiang government website.

When the community workers called their superiors to report “suspicious people” and knives, they were taken hostage by the gang of suspected terrorists, according to the report. Armed with axes and large knives, the gang attacked police and officials who rushed to the scene, Xinjiang government spokeswoman Hou Hanmin told Reuters. The gang later killed the hostages and set the house on fire, killing the other people there, she said.

“Preliminary investigations have established that this was a gang plotting to carry out violent terrorist activities,” Tianshan reported.

Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the German-based World Uyghur Congress, denied those involved were part of an organized group and dismissed the Chinese government’s claims of terrorism. “They always use such labels as a way of justifying their use of armed force,” Raxit told the Associated Press.

Xinjiang suffers regular bursts of ethnic violence, after which the Chinese government account always differs starkly from that presented by exile groups such as the World Uyghur Congress. Independent verification is almost impossible to obtain. Though foreign reporters are not banned from Xinjiang, as they are from Tibet, their work is greatly impeded.

An annual U.S. State Department human rights report released Friday said that in 2012, China’s Uighurs, like the Tibetans, suffered “severe official repression of the freedoms of speech, religion, association, and harsh restrictions” on their movement.

The Chinese government “continued to repress Uighurs expressing peaceful political dissent and independent Muslim religious leaders, often citing counterterrorism as the reason for taking action,” the report said.

At China’s annual session of its parliament in March, the Communist Party boss of Xinjiang, Zhang Chunxian, said, “Although the situation remains tough, the overall stability in Xinjiang is improving and under control,” Xinhua reported. At the same session, officials provided reporters with propaganda materials, including an English-language introduction to the region, “Understanding Xinjiang,” which said, “Xinjiang natives are carefree,” for under communist rule, its different ethnic groups are “the real masters of their own lives and destiny.”

The frequency of violent incidents suggest the true picture is less rosy, and relations between the Uighur and Han Chinese residents are often tense. In March, four people were killed in a knife attack in central Xinjiang, while 20 Uighur men were sentenced to terms of up to life imprisonment for involvement in terrorism and “inciting secession,” state media said.

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