6 reported dead in renewed Uighur violence in western China

Police killed six militant “thugs” in China’s rebellious Xinjiang region Monday after several of them reportedly tried to set off an explosive device, according to state media.

The violence again highlights China’s struggle to quell unrest in its western border areas that butt up against several restive Muslim countries. It came three days after state media reported that Zhang Chunxian, Xinjiang’s Communist Party chief, had demanded “a tougher counterpunch” against terrorism in his region, a vast desert area in western China that’s home to millions of Muslim Uighurs.

Monday’s battle took place in a commercial zone of Shule County, just south of Kashgar, Xinjiang’s second-largest city, according to the Tianshan website, which is sponsored by the publicity department of the Xinjiang autonomous region.

At about 10:10 a.m. Monday, police received a report of “a suspicious person” carrying an explosive device, according to the Tianshan report.

“The police quickly went out, the thug was holding an ax and was shot to death while he was attempting to detonate the explosive device,” the report said. “Five more thugs attempted to detonate the explosive device in succession and were shot dead by police decisively.” No police or civilians were reported injured in the attack.

Although details of the state media report couldn’t be independently verified, Monday’s toll suggests that Xinjiang’s recent violent eruptions are far from over. Last year’s bloody clashes included 29 people killed in a knife attack March 1at a train station in Kunming, in southwest China; 39 killed in a market attack in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, in May; and 59 “terrorists” and 37 civilians killed south of Kashgar during an attack on a police station in July.

Chinese state media routinely characterize such violence as the work of separatists bent on turning Xinjiang into an independent East Turkestan, the term used by some Uighurs. But experts say that at least some of the violence is spontaneous, stemming from China’s repressive and unequal treatment of the region’s Muslim population.

In comments last week, Zhang, the Xinjiang party chief, said the fight against terrorism had entered a “more complicated and more intensive” phase, according to a report Friday by the Xinhua news service.

The report said the government had punished 17 government officials for dereliction of duty before a Sept. 21 attack by militants in Luntai County, Xinjiang. According to state media, 40 “rioters” died in the melee, along with six civilians.

“It’s a historic battle . . . We must be proactive to brandish the sword and advance against terrorists in a full-on approach,” Zhang said.

On Saturday, state media reported that Xinjiang’s Legislature had passed a regulation banning the public wearing of burqas, a garment favored by conservative Muslims that covers women’s heads and faces. The report said “burqas are not traditional dress” for Uighur women and noted that wearing them in public places “is banned in countries such as Belgium and France.”

During a visit to Kashgar in September, a McClatchy reporter saw women wearing burqas, not far from government signs that urged them to “be beautiful” and not cover their faces.

Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking people, have herded, farmed and owned businesses within the disputed borders of Xinjiang for centuries. They once were a majority in the region. Partly because of government incentives, hundreds of Han Chinese have moved to the region, making Uighurs a minority, with many worried about their cultural survival.

As violence has risen in Xinjiang, tourism has dropped, even as China’s President Xi Jinping hopes to build a “Silk Road Economic Belt” that will expand business and tourist ties through Xinjiang to neighboring countries. On Monday, the China Daily published a photo of happy Chinese tourists riding in a donkey cart piloted by a Uighur man in Turpan, just south of Urumqi. The caption said Turpan would soon benefit from “China-led new development initiatives designed to inject new impetus in key regions in western China.”

McClatchy special correspondent Tiantian Zhang contributed to this report.