Xinjiang authorities said Monday's attack on a police station in Hotan that killed four people was an act of terrorism, but overseas Uygur groups alleged that police opened fire on peaceful protesters, killing at least 20.
'The attack was violent, of a terroristic nature, organised and premeditated,' Hou Hanmin, director of the government's news office in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, told the South China Morning Post yesterday.
The incident was briefly reported on Monday by state-run Xinhua news agency, which said a gang of 'thugs' attacked the police station around noon, taking hostages and setting fires. According to the report, police had the situation under control by about 1.30pm, having shot dead an unidentified number of 'thugs' and rescued six hostages. The four said to have been killed were a paramilitary police officer, a police assistant and two other hostages.
Also on Monday, the People's Daily said on its Xinjiang news website that 14 'thugs' were shot dead, but this report could not be found on mainland news portals yesterday.
Hou refused to confirm the number of casualties, but provided more information on the attack yesterday. She said the attackers first went for the city's Industrial and Commerce Office, injuring two people there, then charged into the police station next door, where they stabbed the police assistant stationed at the entrance before setting fires inside with explosives and petrol bombs.
They also waved black flags that bore white Arabic script, which were the flags of jihad, or holy war, Hou said.
She said the authorities would release more information soon.
Dilxadi Rexiti, a spokesman for the Germany-based World Uygur Congress, said Chinese authorities were distorting the facts.
Rexiti said that, according to his sources in Hotan, disgruntled Uygurs gathered at a bazaar near the police station on Monday around 10am, hoping to walk to government departments to protest against the 'disappearance' of a large number of young Uygurs - taken away around the anniversary of July 5, 2009, ethnic riots in Urumqi that left 197 people dead, most of them Han - as well as other problems Uygurs face, such as land disputes with Han residents in the city.
But police 'unreasonably' used force and opened fired on the protesters, wounding one person and arresting 13 others, Rexiti said.
Thereafter, 'things escalated', he said, and many Uygurs stormed government departments to protest against the arrests. During the clashes, police killed at least 20 Uygurs and injured 12, including four women and an 11-year-old girl.
'At least 70 people have been arrested since yesterday afternoon,' Rexiti said. He did not respond directly when asked if the protesters were carrying flags or explosives.
Xinjiang has seen a string of violent attacks in recent years in which police are often targeted. While Beijing often blames these attacks on terrorists calling for an independent East Turkestan, Uygurs in Xinjiang say such claims are excuses for the authorities to continue long-standing unfair treatment of the ethnic minority. The discontent exploded in Urumqi two years ago.