Chinese Authorities Raise Death Toll in Xinjiang Violence
  • Wed, 02/29/2012 - 21:18

Updated February 29, 2012, 7:41 p.m. ET

BEIJING—Authorities in China's restive western Xinjiang region on Wednesday raised the number of people killed in a Tuesday attack there to 20, potentially marking a fresh wave of ethnic unrest just as leaders from across the country are preparing to convene in Beijing for an annual legislative session.

A statement posted Wednesday to a news website controlled by the regional government said 13 people were killed by knife-wielding assailants on a street in Xinjiang's far-western county of Yecheng, near China's border with Pakistan. Seven suspected attackers were shot and killed by police, the statement said, and two others had been arrested. The attack is the worst known case of violence in the region since last summer.

The state-run Xinhua news agency reported Tuesday that 10 people were killed in the attack and two attackers were killed by police.

A spokesman for the prefectural government of Kashgar declined to comment beyond the statement, and residents in the remote region couldn't be reached to verify the government's account.

Overseas Uighur groups, which routinely dispute Chinese government accounts of attacks in Xinjiang, said the official statements should be viewed with "extreme caution" until independently verified.

"Harsh security measures and a heavy police presence in the region have created a climate of fear under which no one dares to speak the truth," the Washington-based Uyghur American Association said in a statement about the most recent attacks.

Xinjiang is home to one of China's most violent ethnic conflicts, and clashes between Muslim Uighurs and Han police and residents in the region have left hundreds dead in recent years. Beijing has embarked on a campaign to promote investment in the region as well as trade between Xinjiang and neighboring Central Asian nations. Han entrepreneurs have flocked to the region, though in many cases the growing Chinese presence has further exacerbated Uighur resistance.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a daily news briefing Wednesday that the overall situation across Xinjiang was "quite good" and said economic development had significantly benefited the region, but he declined to offer specifics.

The fresh attacks come just as the national government is gearing up for a once-a-year legislative session. Beijing is eager to present a unified front during the National People's Congress, which begins next week, even amid a marked upswing in ethnic unrest in some regions during the past year.

Top leaders in Beijing are also preparing for a once-a-decade central leadership transition beginning next fall. Vice President Xi Jinping is expected to succeed Hu Jintao as president, and political analysts are closely watching for any sign he could deviate from Mr. Hu's largely hardliner stance toward rebellious ethnic minority groups.

To the south of Xinjiang, ethnic Tibetans in Sichuan province and elsewhere are continuing their worst bout of unrest since 2008. More than 20 Tibetans—many of whom are current or former monks and nuns—have set themselves on fire in Tibetan regions since last year. Others have been shot dead by police during protests, according to Chinese state media and overseas advocacy groups.

The continuing violence in Xinjiang appears to have also begun driving a wedge between China and Pakistan, one of Beijing's most important allies. Following an attack in the region last year, some authorities said suspected assailants had received weapons and explosives training in Pakistan-based militant camps. Little evidence has so far emerged to corroborate those claims, and some political analysts have said the accusations are a way of Beijing expressing discontent with Islamabad's counterterrorism efforts.

Beijing has long accused Uighur assailants of being members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which China says links to al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Uighurs have close cultural ties to the Turks, and have waged a long and often bloody campaign for independence.

Mr. Hong, the government spokesman, didn't say whether authorities had any evidence that suspected assailants were tied to Pakistani terrorist groups.

Chinese security presence across the region has increased dramatically since 2009, when interethnic clashes in the regional capital of Urumqi left nearly 200 people dead. Last summer, during the most recent major case of Xinjiang unrest, dozens of people were killed during attacks at local police stations, restaurants and marketplaces.
—Kersten Zhang contributed to this article.

Write to Brian Spegele at