HONG KONG -- The police in the volatile far-western Chinese region of Xinjiang on Sunday said a deadly confrontation with members of the Uighur ethnic minority days before was set off by religious extremists who attacked the police after one of their group was arrested, the state media reported.
China's Communist Party leadership has demanded an unyielding security response in Xinjiang after two violent clashes with Uighurs, on Wednesday and Friday. Those episodes have kindled fears of a repeat of the events of July 5, 2009, when protests in Xinjiang's regional capital, Urumqi, grew into street attacks that left at least 197 residents dead, many of them Han Chinese, by far the country's biggest ethnic group.
Over the weekend, the government mounted an intimidating display of force in Urumqi, where convoys of People's Armed Police patrolled the streets. And the report that the police had swiftly identified all the suspects involved in the violence on Wednesday also appeared to be part of that show of strength.
Advocates of Uighur self-determination and international human rights groups, however, say China's heavy-handed security policies in Xinjiang are exacerbating tensions with Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking people, nearly all of whom adhere to Islam. Many of those critics are also likely be skeptical of the government's account of the bloodshed that broke out in Lukqun, a town in Turpan Prefecture, which left a total of 35 people dead.
According to that account, published by China's state-run Xinhua news agency, the attack was mounted by a group of religious extremists who in February formed a "violent terrorist gang." The report did not identify their religion, although their Uighur names left scant doubt that they were Muslims.
Fifteen members of the group attacked the Lukqun town police station, government offices and shops after the police arrested one of the members, Xinhua said. Their attack left 24 people dead, 16 of them Uighur.
"They burned and destroyed vehicles, and wielded knives, madly slashing and killing police and innocent members of the public," the Xinhua report said. The police shot dead 11 of the rioters, and four were wounded and captured, said the report. On Sunday, the police caught the last gang member who was on the run, it said.
Human rights groups have said that China uses sweeping accusations of terrorism and religious extremism to describe outbursts of Uighur discontent, and ignores the role of its own harsh policies in creating discontent. Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress, a group of exiled Uighurs who advocate for the region's independence, has said that the bloodshed was stoked by indiscriminate detentions of Uighurs in the area. (Uyghur is an alternative spelling of Uighur.)
On Friday, a violent confrontation also broke out in Hotan Prefecture, in southern Xinjiang. Reports about that clash have been sparse; a bulletin from the region's news agency said no members of the public were killed or injured.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.