TURPAN, China: China on Friday labelled riots in restive Xinjiang as “a violent terrorist attack” after state media said the death roll rose to 35 and authorities tightened control ahead of the anniversary of 2009 clashes.
Wednesday’s violence in the western desert region, which is home to 10 million mostly Uighur Muslims, were the worst to hit the resource-rich province since riots on July 5, 2009, left hundreds dead.
“We defined the attack as a violent terrorist attack,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters at a regular briefing in Beijing.
Some in the community have blamed the unrest on economic inequality and religious repression — claims that China rejects, pointing to regional investment and placing the blame instead on “terrorists”.
The Xinhua state news agency said “knife-wielding mobs” in Turpan city’s Lukqun township attacked police stations and set fire to cars before officers opened fire.
The clashes left 35 dead including 11 rioters, while a further 21 police and civilians were injured and four rioters detained, the report said.
The US-based Radio Free Asia reported a higher death toll of 46, also including 11 rioters, citing officials and residents.
The World Uyghur Congress, a group run by Uighurs in exile, said in a statement that the incident was “evidence of China’s failed policies towards Uighurs”.
It added that “an information blackout and security crackdown” in the area raised questions about the state media’s version of events.
China closely restricts information about unrest in Xinjiang, and blocked access across the region for several months after the violence in 2009.
The ramped-up security in Lukqun has apparently impacted road traffic and communications.
A resident of Turpan told AFP Friday that his phone calls and text messages to friends in Lukqun could not get through.
Local authorities followed two AFP journalists in their car and detained them for about an hour, stressing that the site of the attacks was closed to media.
A day earlier police at a checkpoint 40 kilometres (25 miles) from Lukqun barred the reporters from entering, citing safety fears and ongoing investigations.
It said Xinjiang authorities were preparing for potential disturbances ahead of next week’s anniversary of the 2009 clashes, which involved Uighurs and ethnic majority Han in the regional capital, Urumqi.
Official figures show that 46 percent of Xinjiang’s population is Uighur, while another 39 percent are Han.
Millions of Han have relocated to the region in recent decades to find work, in a settlement drive that has caused friction in the community.
Similar tensions have arisen in Tibet, which neighbours Xinjiang to the south and is also home to a sizeable Tibetan ethnic group.
Beijing denies repressing ethnic minorities, who make up less than 10 percent of the national population and sometimes enjoy preferential policies.
China “protects all the rights, including the freedom of religious beliefs by people of all ethnic groups”, Hua, the foreign ministry spokeswoman, was quoted as saying in the Global Times on Friday.
Xinhua said that the situation where Wednesday’s attack had occurred was “generally stable”.
Turpan police and Xinjiang information officials contacted by AFP declined to comment, referring queries instead to reports by Xinhua.