At least 15 people were killed and 14 others injured in the latest outbreak of bloodshed to hit China’s violence-stricken northwest, according to state-controlled media.
Details of what official reports immediately dubbed a “terrorist attack” remained sketchy on Saturday afternoon, one day after the incident took place in Xinjiang’s Yarkand county.
However, Xinhua, the state news agency, claimed police had gunned down 11 “mobsters” after the group set upon civilians at around 1.30pm on Friday with knives and “explosives devices”, killing four.
“A number of explosive devices, knives and axes were found at the scene,” Xinhua reported. Fourteen people were injured
The killings – the second such episode to hit Yarkand county this year – come as Beijing struggles to respond to what appears to be a dramatic spike in violence linked to Xinjiang, the home of the largely Muslim Uighur ethnic minority.
The Communist Party increasingly blames Islamic extremists for the violence but experts and activists believe it is also fuelled by Beijing’s repressive and discriminatory policies towards the Uighurs and the increasing presence in Xinjiang of immigrants from China’s Han majority.
In late July at least 96 people were killed in Yarkand in circumstances that remain murky. State media said the killing began when terrorists armed with knives and axes murdered 37 civilians. Police then opened fire on the alleged perpetrators, killing dozens.
With a major anti-terror campaign underway, independent reporting from Xinjiang is now effectively impossible meaning the precise details of such attacks rarely surface.
News of Friday’s attack came one day after Xinjiang’s government announced plans to hire 3,000 ex-soldiers in a bid to further boost security.
James Leibold, a specialist on China’s ethnic policy from La Trobe University in Australia, said Beijing appeared to be trying to raise a “protective” shield around Han Chinese interests in Xinjiang including schools, banks and shopping centres. That was partly intended to prevent a further slowing of Han migration to the border region, he argued.
“The attacks have really spooked the Han population in Xinjiang and the Party cannot afford to lose their trust and faith.”