China 'stages' large military drill in Xinjiang as latest violence branded 'terrorism'
China staged a large military exercise in the ethnically-divided Xinjiang region on Saturday, where clashes this week killed at least 35 people.
Tanks, army vehicles, and army personnel blocked access to streets in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi, where army units carried out an exercise, an AFP reporter present at the scene said. Large sections of the city’s centre were shut down for the exercise, she said.
The exercise was carried out by members of the People’s Armed Police, part of China’s armed forces responsible for law enforcement and internal security during peacetime.
China’s state-run media on Saturday blamed more than 100 people it branded “terrorists” for sparking “riots” in Xinjiang.
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 Uygur minority – since 2009, when riots killed about 200 people.
Radio Free Asia, which is funded by the US government, quoted a resident as saying that local Uygurs 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 Uygurs as they left a local mosque.
“Young Uygurs 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.
China often labels outbreaks of sporadic unrest in the region as terrorism – claims denied by Uygur rights groups who blame unrest on economic inequality and religious repression.
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 Uygurs 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 Uygur minority, though the region’s top official is a member of the Han group.
Residents contacted by telephone said police, some armed, were lining streets and intersections in the town following the attack. Another local resident said 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 Uygur and Han districts, and one taxi driver, who did not give his name, said that Han residents were avoiding Uygur dominated areas in the run up to the anniversary.