|Ethnically tense northwestern region of Xinjiang holds oil, gas and coal deposits|
Chinese police have said 14 “rioters” were among 18 people killed in a clash at a police station in the ethnically tense northwestern region of Xinjiang, a government website has reported.
The Xinjiang government-run website, tianshannet.com, said on Wednesday that police fatally shot the 14 rioters after giving “legal education and warnings”.
It said the rioters, armed with axes, knives, daggers, Molotov cocktails and explosive devices sneaked into the desert city of Hotan, a Uighur-majority town, days before the clash on Monday.
They “crazily beat, smashed and set on fire” the police station, and hung “flags of extreme religion” on the top of the station, the report said.
Two policemen and two hostages were also killed in the clash, and that four of the rioters were arrested, it said.
“It was an organised, premeditated and severe violent terrorist attack to local politics-and-law departments,” the report said.
Hou Hanmin, chief of the regional information office, said, “It is certain that it was a terrorist attack.”
But Germany-based exile group, World Uyghur Congress, disputed the official account of Monday’s clash.
It said on Tuesday that 14 Uighurs were beaten to death and six shot dead when police opened fire on a peaceful protest, leading to fighting between the two sides. It said 70 others were arrested.
The differing accounts from the government and exile group could not be independently verified.
Beijing, wary of instability and the threat to the Communist party’s grip on power, often blames what it calls violent separatist groups in Xinjiang for attacks on police or other government targets, saying they work with al-Qaeda or Central Asian fighters to bring about an independent state called East Turkestan.
Many Uighurs – a Muslim, Turkic-speaking people native to the region – chafe under rule from Beijing and restrictions on their language, culture and religion.
They make up less than half of Xinjiang’s population after decades of immigration by the majority Han from other parts of China.
Dilxat Raxit of the World Uyghur Congress said he believed the death toll and the number of injured were likely to escalate.
“All forms of protests by Uighurs are met with violent crackdowns. The clash escalated only after the crackdown and the Chinese government later referred to it as act of ‘terrorism’,” he said.
“The Chinese government consistently uses the term ‘terrorism’ to quieten down the demands of the Uighurs.”
In March 2008, hundreds marched through the weekly bazaar in a protest the city government blamed on ethnic separatists.
Chinese censors blocked searches on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging services, on the attack. Search results for the Chinese renderings of “Xinjiang unrest” and “Hotan” showed a page that said, “according to relevant laws, regulations and policies, search results are not displayed”.
A vast swath of territory, accounting for one-sixth of China’s land mass, Xinjiang holds oil, gas and coal deposits and borders Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Central Asia.
In July 2009, Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi was rocked by violence between majority Han Chinese and minority Uighurs that killed nearly 200 people.
Since then, China has executed nine people it blamed for instigating the riots, detained and prosecuted hundreds and ramped up spending on security, according to state media and overseas rights groups.
China has earmarked billions of dollars for the relatively poorer southern part of Xinjiang, where Hotan is located, to try to soothe income disparities that have contributed to ethnic violence.