The early Monday attack on a public security bureau in the restive region of Xinjiang was “clearly” an organised and premeditated act of terrorism, a security official in the region said.
Eight assailants, wielding knives and explosives, were killed by police, while another suspect was detained after the stand-off.
The incident happened around 6.30am in Yarkand county, close to the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar in southern Xinjiang.
The unnamed anti-terror official told the nationalist Global Times newspaper that initial investigations showed the gang, led by Usman Barat and Abdugheni Abdukhadir, had been watching terrorist videos and “promoting religious extremist ideas” since August.
In signs of a premeditated plot, they attacked in the early morning, “when people are on the lowest alert” and used weapons that likely took them some time to procure, the official was quoted as saying.
They also raised funds, and made and tested explosives for planned attacks, the public security bureau of Kashgar told Xinhua.
The authorites have reportedly confiscated 25 explosives and nine knives at the scene.
Police have as yet not disclosed in full the identities or ethnic origins of the attackers.
However, the exiled congress representing the Muslim-majority, Turkic-speaking Uygurs, the largest ethnic group in Xinjiang, said the nine assailants did not attack the police station but were demonstrating against arbitrary arrests.
But the official in the Global Times report said that, as the attack was against a terrorist-fighting organisation, the element of terrorism was “very clear”.
“Due to the forces of the ‘Three Evils’ in and out of the country, terrorist activity in Xinjiang is in its high-incidence, active period [this year],” he said. The “Three Evils” are defined by the government as terrorism, separatism and religious extremism.
The clash on Monday occurred about 200 kilometres southwest of Kashgar’s Sayibage town, where 16 people died in a clash between Uygurs and police two weeks ago.
At least 91 people, including police officers and members of ethnic groups, have been killed in violence in Xinjiang since April, according to state media reports.
Last month, at least nine civilians and two policemen were killed when a group of people armed with axes and knives attacked a police station, also near Kashgar, state media said.
China has tightened security in Xinjiang after a vehicle carrying three Uygurs ploughed into tourists on the edge of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in October, killing two tourists along with the car’s driver and passengers.
Meanwhile, an Uygur group in exile on Tuesday demanded Chinese authorities allow independent investigations into a clash in Xinjiang where eight “attackers” were shot dead by police, the latest deadly incident in the largely Muslim region.
The Xinjiang regional government should allow “an independent investigation to be conducted by international organs”, the Munich-based World Uygur Congress (WUC) said in a statement.
It also called on Beijing to open Shache county – known as Yarkan in the Uygur language – to foreign media and government representatives “to allow transparency surrounding the narrative of the incident”.
Uygurs, who have followed Islam for centuries, are the largest ethnic group in Xinjiang, a sprawling and resource-rich region four times the size of Japan and rich in oil and natural gas.
The WUC alleged that the incident was another case of the government silencing dissent by killing Uygurs under the pretext of fighting terrorism.
“This incident testifies to a recent trend of state-sponsored violence used to quell Uighur dissent, whereby authorities ignore due process of the law, shoot and kill Uygurs, label them terrorists and then use counter-terrorism to justify the unlawful killings,” said WUC president Rebiya Kadeer in the statement.
Rights groups and outside scholars, however, say unrest is spawned by cultural oppression, intrusive security measures and a wave of immigration by China’s Han majority.
Information in the area is tightly controlled and difficult to independently verify.
With additional reporting from Staff Reporter and AFP
A String of Violence This Year:
March 7: downtown Korla: at least four dead
April 23: Selibuya Township, Kashgar: 21 dead, including 15 social workers and police
June 26: Lukqun Township, Shanshan county, in Turpan prefecture: 35 killed, including two police
June 28: Hanairike Township: no official death toll, but locals said several people were killed
August 20: Kargilik County, Kashgar: at least 16 dead, including one police officer
October 28: Tiananmen Square, Beijing: five dead, including two tourists
November 16: Selibuya Township, Kashgar: 11 dead, including two auxiliary police officers
December 15: Shufu County, Kashgar: 16 dead, including two police officers