URUMQI, China: China’s state-run media on Saturday blamed over 100 people it branded “terrorists” for sparking “riots” in the ethnically-divided region of Xinjiang, where days earlier clashes killed 35.
The latest unrest took place in the prefecture of Hotan on Friday, where the group “(attacked) a number of people with weapons after gathering at local religious venues,” the state-run Global Times said on Saturday.
It followed clashes on Wednesday that were the deadliest to hit the western desert region — home to around 10 million members of the mostly Muslim Uighur minority — since 2009, when riots killed around 200 people.
Radio Free Asia, which is funded by the US government, quoted a resident as saying that local Uighurs were angry police had “stormed into the mosque and surrounded it” during prayers last week because the local imam had deviated from an officially sanctioned sermon.
It also quoted a source as saying police opened fire on Uighurs as they left a local mosque.
“Young Uighurs on motorcycles were leaving the mosque, they were shouting religious slogans…The police were frightened and started shooting at them … At least two died and one was injured,” the report said.
A state-run news website, Tianshan Web, said that no members of the public had been killed or injured, without stating whether police or government staff had died.
China’s President Xi Jinping said, following the attacks, that “(the incidents) must be handled quickly to guarantee the general stability of the society,” Tianshan Web reported on Saturday.
It was not possible to verify details of Wednesday’s clash independently as reporters were barred from entering the town, detained and later followed by local police.
The Uyghur American Association, run by exiled members of the minority, said a “blackout of news” on attacks in the region cast doubt on Chinese government claims in a statement released on Saturday.
“The state then uses its propaganda apparatus to label the incident ‘terrorism’ without presenting any evidence that can be independently proved,” the group said.
The recent unrest occurred shortly before the anniversary of the 2009 riots, and ahead of celebrations for the Muslim Ramadan festival — which Uighurs have said are repressed by local authorities.
Authorities in parts of Xinjiang have banned students and government officials from fasting and visiting mosques during Ramadan, according to notices on government websites, while restaurant owners have reportedly been pressured not to close during the period.
Some officials and police officers in Xinjiang are members of the Uighur minority, though the region’s top official is a member of the Han group.
AFP reporters saw members of China’s armed paramilitary police transported near Lukqun, the town affected by riots on Wednesday.
Residents contacted by AFP by telephone said police, some armed, were lining streets and intersections in the town following the attack. Another local resident told AFP he could not send text messages to the area.
Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi was under tight security on Saturday ahead of the anniversary of the 2009 riots on July 5, and AFP reporters saw metal detector tests carried out at public places across the city.
Locals said the city was divided into Uighur and Han districts, and one taxi driver, who did not give his name, said that Han residents were avoiding Uighur dominated areas in the run up to the anniversary.
Hotan is situated in southern Xinjiang — an area with a mainly Uighur population — and is known for its jade-mining industry. At least 18 people died in the prefecture in 2011 when locals attacked a police station.
Calls to local police in Hotan were not answered on Saturday.
Official figures show that 46 percent of Xinjiang’s population is Uighur, while another 39 percent are members of China’s dominant Han majority.
In recent decades millions of Han have relocated to the region — which is rich in coal and gas — to find work, in a settlement drive that has caused friction in the community.
Beijing denies repressing ethnic minorities, who make up less than 10 percent of the national population and sometimes enjoy preferential policies.
China closely restricts information about unrest in Xinjiang, and blocked access across the region for several months after the violence in 2009.