Armed clashes between police and ethnic minority Uyghurs in China’s troubled Xinjiang region have left at least eight people dead, police sources said, as an overseas Uyghur group questioned the veracity of official reports on the incident.
Police in the southern city of Hotan shot and killed seven “terrorists,” injuring four others and detaining four people, according to the Xinjiang regional Communist Party propaganda office.
Local residents told RFA on Thursday that the seven were ethnic minority Muslim Uyghurs, many of whom are unhappy under Chinese rule.
The incident, which occurred late on Wednesday night in Hotan’s Pishan county, was sparked by the taking of two hostages by “a terrorist gang,” the propaganda office said.
Pishan county lies on the southern edge of the vast Taklamakan desert near the border with India and Pakistan.
A police source told RFA that the county’s deputy police chief was stabbed to death in the incident at Mukula village.
The officer, identified as Adil Abduveli, and four other policemen were trying to prevent a group of Uyghur youths from crossing over the border into Pakistan when the fight occurred, the source said.
As Abduveli was stabbed by a youth with a knife, police opened fire on the other youths, the police source said, without giving details of the number of those killed or arrested.
The Pishan resident said the seven killed “were all Uyghurs and all terrorists.”
Asked if the group had indeed taken hostages, he replied: “We don’t really know.”
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, said he doubted the official version of events.
“It’s not really credible to say the clashes were entirely caused by the actions of one party,” he said. “There are various accounts on the ground of the number of people who died.”
He said the authorities had sealed off all major routes into the county following the incident, and thrown a security cordon around the hospital where the dead and injured were taken.
“They told the hospital that they mustn’t talk to any outsiders about the casualties,” he said. “Now they are detaining Uyghurs throughout the whole city, and many Uyghur youth have been detained or ‘disappeared’.”
“If Beijing hopes to avoid similar clashes in future, they should openly guarantee the rights of Uyghurs to use peaceful means to voice their opposition [to the government,]” he said.
“If China continues to limit [those rights], then this will lead to more such incidents,” he warned.
Raxit also said that the casualty figure could have been higher.
“The word on the ground is that the number of deaths and injuries is greater than China is announcing publicly. According to [my sources], some people are saying nine people died, some 10. So we can’t be sure.”
An employee who answered the phone at a police station in Pishan county near where the incident took place said there had been no damage done there.
“No it hasn’t,” the employee said. “As for the rest of it, please will you call the office. I have only just come to work.”
Beijing has often said that its primary terrorism threat comes from the Xinjiang region, where Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim people, resent Chinese rule and controls on their religion, culture and language.
Xinjiang authorities have stepped up security checks on citizens in recent weeks, detaining at least five ethnic minority Uyghurs for possession of material deemed subversive by Beijing, according to the World Uyghur Congress.
Raxit said the tightened measures had begun last week in the regional capital Urumqi, but had also been reported in the south of the region, where police were carrying out house searches in the middle of the night.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA’s Mandarin service, Mihray Abdilim for RFA’s Uyghur service and Hai Nan for RFA’s Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.