It has been more than a week since China's remote western Xinjiang region was hit by its worst unrest in more than year. Details of the incident still remain sketchy. Chinese state media have reported at least 18 people died after a group of armed attackers stormed a police station in Xinjiang’s southern city Hotian. Officials say 14 of those killed were the attackers, but it is still unclear who the alleged assailants were and what led to the violence.
From the day the incident occurred - on July 18 - the government’s characterization of the alleged group of attackers and other details have been evolving. At first, they were labeled as “thugs,” and later the incident was called a “serious violent terrorist attack” by state media. However, when authorities raised the number of those killed from four to 18 it called the perpetrators “rioters.”
Overseas Uighur groups are rejecting accounts of the incident outlined in state media and say that at least 20 people were killed and 70 others arrested. They say that fighting between the two sides began when police opened fire on protesters.
“The initial report was four [dead], now we are up to 20," said Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. "There were accusations of kidnapping and attack with bombs, now there's some other allegations of terrorist training that led to this attack. It's all very confusing and honestly not very convincing from the government side.”
Despite the confusion, Bequelin says that he is not suggesting that no violence occurred.
“It would be very careless to ignore that there is a history of violence and anti-state activities in Xinjiang and in southern Xinjiang, in particular. But, likewise, this incident cannot be viewed outside of the larger context, which is one of very broad and severe political suppression of the Uighur by the Chinese state and increased anxieties about the future of the Uighur people,” said Bequelin.
Home of ethnic Uighurs
Xinjiang accounts for about one-sixth of China's overall land mass and is crucial strategically to the country because of its rich deposits of oil and gas and its close proximity to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia. The region is home to many ethnic Uighurs, the region's Turkic-speaking minority population. China accuses some members of this community of seeking independence through violence.
Sean Roberts, director of the International Development Studies Program at George Washington University says tensions between Han Chinese and the region's mainly Muslim ethnic group, the Uighurs reaches back to at least the 18th century.
“But in more recent years, there have been a couple of issues that have been paramount," said Roberts. "One has been the global war on terror and some of the measures that have been taken by the Chinese state to repress Uighur political activity in the name of anti-terrorism, the second thing that is happening now in Xinjiang is that the Chinese state is developing Xinjiang at a breakneck speed.”
Official accounts of this month's incident have been garnished with details about how the attack was premeditated and how it was allegedly the work of religious extremists.
Reports say that the attackers spoke with an "out of town accent" and that they purchased their weapons after arriving in town, to not draw any undue attention to themselves. They also are alleged to have flown a “Jihadist flag” on the roof of the station, during the standoff.
There have also been suggestions the attacks were masterminded from outside the country. Some Chinese terrorism analysts have pointed to the influence of groups in neighboring Pakistan.
Investigation under way
China's national counter-terrorism office has dispatched a working team to Xinjiang to investigate the incident, but has yet to comment on the attack.
The desert city, Hotian, is located in southwest Xinjiang, near the edge of China's western border with Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Analysts note that, in the past, there have been some connections with terrorist groups outside Xinjiang, such as Uighur extremists who were reported to have been killed by a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan last year; the occasional surfacing of videos; and, the fact that Uighurs were among those captured and held in Guantanamo in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks.
Bequelin says that, although such links are not implausible, China has also overblown these connections in the past.
“Every time the police arrest an alleged terrorist group, when they detail the kind of weapons and bombs that they’ve reportedly found, these tend to show that there is no connection with Pakistan and Afghanistan because the weapons and explosives are just very clearly sort of improvised and made domestically not imported, not trafficked from Central Asia or from Pakistan or Afghanistan where weapons are very readily available,” said Bequelin.
In the wake of last week's attack police say they confiscated about 30 weapons including daggers, knives, machetes and axes as well as three unused Molotov cocktails, 48 rocks and a sling shot.
Local anger or organized terrorism?
Raffaello Pantucci, an associate fellow at the International Center for the Study for Radicalization at King’s College, says the latest outbreak of violence appeared to be more of an explosion of anger at the local level.
“On the evidence that we see so far, it's very hard to say they would be, if we were seeing that this is an organized terrorist network that is training in Pakistan in guns and bomb making and is then dispatching people and networks to them come back to China to conduct attacks, I mean the level of attacks we've seen are such a low quality and low caliber, it's very hard to imagine that this is what they are aiming to do,” said Pantucci.
Chinese state media reports have not named any motive for the attacks aside from the broader goal of separatism and deliberately targeting local political and law departments. They deny claims by overseas Uighur groups that the incident followed protests by local residents.
The names of the attackers who were killed or of the four who were taken into custody have yet to be released. Chinese reports say those involved in the incident were between 20 to 40 years of age.
State media reports have noted, however, that not all of those who were injured and killed were Han Chinese and that several were minorities.