China's official state news agency has said a clash between police and locals in the country's northwestern region of Xinjiang that left 16 people dead was an organised and premeditated attack by a small "terrorist" group.

Xinhua described the assailants as "terrorists" on Tuesday and said an initial investigation by the security forces found that 14 dead locals were from a 20-member group led by a man identified as Hasan Ismail. 

Two other victims were police officers, Xinhua said.

The report said six members of the group were captured, but did not say if Ismail was among those killed or apprehended.

"They are now opening fire and killing people, then calling them terrorists. This deprives them of their right to defend themselves in a court"

- Dilxat Raxit, Sweden-based Uighur activist

Sweden-based Uighur activist Dilxat Raxit said Sunday's incident was the latest example of how Chinese security forces are increasingly opting to kill suspects at the scene rather than capturing them and putting them on trial.

"They are now opening fire and killing people, then calling them terrorists," Raxit said by phone. "This deprives them of their right to defend themselves in a court."

Police had been searching for Ismail in a village in Shufu county in far-west Kashgar prefecture came under attack with explosive devices and firearms at around 11 pm, Xinhua said.

Calls by Reuters news agency to local authorities rang unanswered or were picked up by officials who said they did not know about the attack.

"Ethnic healing"

The Chinese government typically calls such incidents terrorist attacks linked to radicals based overseas, although there is little evidence that they are carefully organised.

In many cases, the violence appears caused by anger over poverty and strict rules on Uighur culture and Muslim worship.

The Global Times newspaper, China's state-run media, called for "ethnic healing" and said Uighurs "are made to believe that they are trusted members of the Chinese populace".

"Winning the hearts of the public in sensitive areas has decisive significance," the paper wrote, adding that "the whole country should be dedicated to dissolving the estrangement" between Uighurs and China's Han majority.

Source: Agencies