A senior Chinese official has threatened to use "heavy pressure" to defeat armed groups and separatists in the country's far western region of Xinjiang, urging religious figures to take the lead in opposing "extremism".

Visiting the trouble ethnic Uighur heartland, Yu Zhengsheng, China's fourth most senior leader, said long-term stability must be the main goal for the region, according to the Xinjiang government's official news website.

"From beginning to end maintain heavy-handed pressure, and resolutely safeguard the people's peaceful life," Yu was quoted as telling officials on his one-day visit to the old Silk Road city of Kashgar on Saturday.

Yu is in charge of religious groups and ethnic minorities and is number four in the ruling Communist Party.

Xinjiang is home to the predominantly Muslim Uighurs fighting for genuine autonomy in the region.


Interactive: China's Uighur unrest


The government has said it faces a serious threat from armed groups and separatists in energy-rich Xinjiang, which sits strategically on the borders of central Asia, and where hundreds have died in violence in recent years.

Speaking later with soldiers, Yu said southern Xinjiang was the "main battle ground in the anti-separatist struggle", urging them to be a "staunch force" in protecting stability.

Yu also visited Kashgar's Id Kah Mosque, China's biggest house of worship for Muslims.

The Id Kah Mosque in the old Silk Road city of Kashgar is China's biggest house of worship for Muslims [AFP]

Last year three suspected fighters armed with knives and axes killed the mosque's imam, Juma Tayir, a well-known pro-government Uighur.

Yu met "patriotic religious figures" and told them they had an important role to play defeating extremism in southern Xinjiang, the government said.

"Religious figures should be brave enough to declare their stand at critical moments and continue taking a leading role in opposing extremism and promoting unity of various ethnic groups," Yu said.

The plight of the Uighurs

The website showed a picture of a smiling Yu chatting to turbaned and bearded Uighurs in the mosque, who all appeared to be dutifully listening to his remarks.

"The religious representatives one after another said that they ... would love and protect ethnic unity as much as they love and protect their eyes," the government said.

China is gearing up to mark on October 1 the 60th year since it established what it calls the Xinjiang Autonomous Region.

Exiles and rights groups have said that China has never presented convincing evidence of the existence of a cohesive armed group fighting the government, and that much of the unrest can be traced back to frustration at controls over the culture and religion of the Uighurs.

In recent days, during the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to the US, Uighurs in the US have also criticised the "miserable" human rights record of the government against the ethnic group.   

"History shows how the Chinese communists denied the Uyghur people their right to self-determination and how Han Chinese immigration, forced and encouraged, has almost turned the Uighurs into a minority in their homeland," the US-based Uyghur American Association said.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies