|Xinjiang has been under heavy security since July 2009 when longs-simmering ethnic tensions boiled over [Getty]
A group of knife-wielding men have attacked a market in the volatile Xinjiang region of northwest China, home to the mainly Muslim Uighur minority, leaving at least 20 people dead, authorities say.
Thirteen people were killed by attackers before police shot seven of them dead, the Xinjiang government said on Wednesday.
The motive behind the attack, which occurred late on Tuesday at the market in the town of Yecheng [also known as Kargilik, in the Kashgar prefecture], was not immediately clear. Xinjiang has suffered repeated outbreaks of unrest in recent years that the government has routinely blamed on separatists and terrorists.
"Nine violent terrorists suddenly surged into the crowd and stabbed to death innocent people with their knives, causing 13 innocent people to die and injuring many," said a statement on the official information website, Tianshan.
"Police rushed to the scene, handled the situation with resolution and shot dead seven violent terrorists, capturing
two," it said.
The regional government did not identify any of the attackers or give their ethnicity. Nor did it identify the ethnicity of their victims.
However, on Wednesday a local police officer, who gave only his surname Tuo, told the AFP news agency: "At around .... 6:00pm [local time; 10:00 GMT] around a dozen rioters carrying axes appeared in the market, in an area that is mostly populated by Han people.
"Most of the victims were Han people, but some were Uighurs."
The vast region, which borders Pakistan and Afghanistan, is home to around nine million Uighurs who complain of oppression under Chinese rule. The number of Han, China's dominant ethnic group, living in the region has increased dramatically over the last decade.
Authorities in Xinjiang said last month they planned to recruit 8,000 extra police officers as China strengthens security in the run-up to a major leadership transition later this year.
The Chinese foreign ministry called the attackers in Wednesday's incident "terrorists", saying that they attacked civilians.
The World Uighur Congress, a German-based exile group, however, said only armed Chinese personnel were targetted in the attack.
"The incident happened because Uighurs can no longer bear China's systematic repression, and are using primitive fighting methods to resist," a statement by Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the group, said.
Citing local sources, he said seven armed Chinese security personnel were killed, and that three people were shot to death. He said that two more people had been killed, but did not provide any details about them, adding that 10 people were injured.
The World Uighur
'Huge influx' blamed
Congress said that authorities in Yecheng had also detained 84 people after the attacks.
Raxit blamed a "huge influx" of Han Chinese immigrants and official discrimination against Uighurs for the violence.
"Uighurs have been completely stripped of any peaceful ways of resisting," he said. "China's repressive measures and the provocation of immigrants are the main reasons behind the incident."
China rejected that version of events.
"At present, Xinjiang is on the path of a leap-forward development," Hong Lei, a foreign ministry spokesman, said. "We firmly oppose a handful of terrorists and separatists in sabotaging the peaceful development, good order and unity."
Xinjiang has been under heavy security since July 2009, when Uighurs launched attacks on members of the Han community in the regional capital Urumqi.
Claims of harmony
The government says nearly 200 people were killed and 1,700 injured in the violence, which contradicted the ruling Communist Party's claims of harmony and unity among the country's dozens of ethnic groups.
Many Uighurs remain angry over the arrests or alleged disappearances of people rounded up across the region in the aftermath of the 2009 violence.
In December, seven people were killed in Pishan county in what the government described as a hostage rescue operation after "terrorists" kidnapped two people.
Exiles, however, said the incident was a conflict between regular Uighurs and policemen prompted by mounting discontent over a crackdown and religious repression in the area.
The region was also hit by three deadly attacks last July that left dozens dead.