REPORTING FROM BEIJING -- At least eight people were killed in western China in a farming town fraught with ethnic tension in what authorities said was an attempt to foil a kidnapping by members of a “terror gang.”
As is often the case in China, the accounts of who did what to whom were maddeningly contradictory, with Chinese police divulging few details and activists for the Uighur minority largely in the dark about what transpired.
The incident took place late Wednesday night in Pishan, an impoverished cotton-growing county about 200 miles from the Pakistan border. Chinese authorities said the deaths occurred when police tried to rescue two shepherds taken hostage.
"The assailants resisted arrest and launched assaults, killing one police officer and injuring another," said a report on the official website for the Xinjiang region of far northwestern China. Other Chinese media suggested the attack was perpetrated by Islamic extremists.
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the World Uighur Congress, an exile group, offered another version of events. He said a group of Uighur men had gone to a police station to protest random searches of people’s homes and were shot.
"This is the way that the Chinese resolve all conflicts. Uighurs have no way to have a peaceful protest," Raxit said in a telephone interview from Sweden.
Raxit said the residents of Pishan were angry that police had been barging into private homes without notice, searching for Korans, other religious literature and clothing that they claimed were evidence of religious extremism.
"Many young men have been taken away for no reason. I think the local Uighur people couldn’t take the pressure anymore," said Raxit.
The Uighurs, a minority group of roughly 9 million, are increasingly threatened by an influx of Han Chinese who have migrated westward in search of economic opportunity. Pishan, as well as the larger nearby cities of Kasghar and Hotan, have witnessed numerous flare-ups of violence. Uighurs armed with knives and homemade explosives have at times attacked police or civilians. The police in turn have dealt harshly with Uighur protests.
Often, the conflicts have revolved around religion. The Chinese Communist Party had banned civil servants from observing the fasting month of Ramadan and attending mosque. Xinhua, the official Chinese news service, said Islamic extremists in Pishan had kidnapped and murdered a Uighur man earlier this month for drinking alcohol.
"Store owners and vendors in some rural areas of Pishan said they are afraid to sell alcoholic drinks or cigarettes over fears of retaliation," the report said.