Police in China's restive Central Asia border area fatally shot seven members of a Muslim ethnic group in what officials said Thursday was an attempt to end a kidnapping by terrorists, but what a rights group said was excessive force.
Accounts from officials and government websites said police officers opened fire after they encountered resistance in a Wednesday night raid on a mountain hideout outside Hotan city to free two men kidnapped by "a violent terrorist group."
Aside from the seven dead, four people were injured and another four arrested, and while police freed the two hostages, one officer was killed and another injured, said an account on the official website of Xinjiang, the region where the incident took place. A spokeswoman for the Xinjiang government confirmed the account and identified the kidnappers and their hostages as Uighurs, the indigenous, mainly Muslim ethnic group.
"They were holding weapons, and they injured the local police," said the spokeswoman, Hou Hanmin.
Long-simmering resentment among Uighurs over rule by China's Han majority and influxes of Chinese migrants into Xinjiang has sporadically erupted into violence. Separatist sentiment is rife, with some Uighurs advocating armed rebellion. A smaller fringe has been radicalised by Islamist calls for war and has been found in training camps across the border in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
China has responded to the sporadic violence by increasing the police presence, conducting raids and at times restricting the practice of Islam — moves that have further alienated many Uighurs and ratcheted up tensions.
Wednesday's raid in Hotan "was an excuse for more suppression," said Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the German-based World Uyghur Congress. Dilxat said that Uighurs in the area reached by phone gave unverified accounts of a higher death toll and told him that police were confiscating mobile phones to prevent calls, messages and photos from getting out.
"The Uighurs cannot get used to Chinese in their homeland," said Dilxat.
Whenever conflict arises, he said, Chinese authorities resort to overwhelming force. "This is the way it is," he said. "As soon as Uighurs resist, the Chinese police turn to violent methods."
The Hotan area has been on the front lines of separatist clashes for more than a decade. In July, a group of Uighurs stormed a police station and took four hostages, killing four; police killed 14 Uighurs to end the takeover.