BEIJING — The latest violent clash in China's troubled Xinjiang region, described by authorities as a terrorist attack, was far more deadly than first reported, according to state media accounts.
At least fifty people died Sunday, including 40 "rioters," and 54 other people were injured, after a series of explosions rocked Xinjiang's Luntai County, Tianshan Net reported late Thursday. Tianshan Net is a news portal run by the regional government. Previous reports said only two people had died.
Six civilians, two police officers and two auxiliary policemen were killed, and two rioters were captured alive, after what Xinjiang police called an "organized and serious" terrorist attack.
Over 300 people have died in the past year in Xinjiang-related violence, according to Chinese state media. Officials blame overseas terror groups for fanning the frustrations and separatist ambitions of the Uighur minority. A mostly Muslim people, many Uighurs chafe at cultural and religious restrictions set by the ruling Communist Party, and resent the economic dominance of China's majority Han ethnic group.
The explosions occurred at two police stations, a shop and a produce market, Tianshan said Thursday. The injured civilians comprised 32 ethnic Uighurs and 22 Han. The 40 "rioters," or assailants, either died from their own explosions or were shot dead by police who "took decisive action," the website reported.
The main suspect, shot dead Sunday, was named as Mamat Tursun, a Uighur-sounding name, although Tianshan did not identify his ethnic group.
A police investigation found since 2008 that Mamat had become so extremist that he attended neither his father's funeral, because he had worked as a civil servant, nor his brother's wedding, as the marriage certificate was government-issued, said Tianshan in a report also used by Xinhua, the state news agency.
Details of the rising tide of violence in Xinjiang are difficult to verify as authorities routinely block foreign media access, while Chinese media are required to run Xinhua reports on such sensitive subjects. Uighur activists overseas regularly challenge the official account and claim that many deadly incidents are caused by police attacking Uighurs who protest against repressive policies, such as forcing Uighur women to remove veils.
Radio Free Asia, a U.S. government-funded news service, quoted a local teacher who said the attackers Sunday were Uighurs angry about mass forced evictions to make way for Han Chinese immigrants.
As the death toll soars in Xinjiang, Uighur activists accuse Chinese police of adopting a "shoot first" policy that also targets the innocent. "The use of force by the Chinese security against Uighurs is really like it is against foreign enemies," Alim Seytoff, President of the Uyghur American Association in Washington, D.C. told the Associated Press this month. "The extrajudicial use of lethal force is rampant."
Exiles and human rights groups, including the New York-based Human Rights Watch, have called for China to allow independent investigations to confirm if the use of force was justified.
Chinese authorities have launched a year-long crackdown against terrorism, and have called for a "people's war" to mobilize society. Online Friday, most Chinese posters on social media sites demanded an even tougher approach to terrorists, but a few dared to question the official narrative. "Forty human lives, all covered by one word as 'violent terrorists,' seek the truth!" wrote Zhang Dengkun, an engineer in the southern city of Shenzhen, on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like micro-blogging platform.
The government's approach to Xinjiang combines heavy-handed security with heavy economic investment, Xinjiang expert Raffaello Pantucci told USA Today last month.
"Fundamentally, a lot of Uighurs do not feel part of China and feel their culture is being taken away. And this is not something that economics are necessarily going to answer," said Pantucci, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute in London, who expects violent clashes will continue, and may spread nationwide.
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