BEIJING — China confirmed Wednesday that police conducted a raid last week on an alleged terrorist cell in the restive northwestern region of Xinjiang, although details about the death toll and identities of those killed in the bloody incident remain sketchy.
Officials have refused to discuss the Aug. 20 incident, the latest in a series of clashes this year that have killed dozens of people and led to scores of arrests.
However, the official Kashgar Daily newspaper reported the raid in an article Wednesday on a memorial service held for policeman Yan Xiaofei, who was killed in the clash. The newspaper said the 32-year-old SWAT team deputy commander was killed while taking part in an action to "deal with a band of violent terrorists." It said he fought in the vanguard of the action, but did not say how he died.
Citing Xinjiang police and government sources, U.S. government-funded station Radio Free Asia said 22 members of the region's native Uighur (WEE'-gur) ethnic group were killed in the raid and their bodies were buried in the desert without their relatives being notified.
The station said police had been monitoring the group from a helicopter for a week as they gathered at a house in Yilkiqi township in the southwestern Xinjiang prefecture of Kashgar. It said police attacked while members of the group were performing Muslim prayers, and that they found six axes and knives at the scene.
An officer reached by phone at Kashgar police headquarters said he wasn't authorized to say anything about the incident and then hung up. Calls to county and township government offices rang unanswered and an official with the Kashgar Communist Party propaganda office asked for questions to be sent by fax.
Xinjiang has long been wracked by violence between authorities and members of the Uighur community who resent Chinese dominance of the economy and chafe at restrictions on their unique Central Asian culture and Muslim religion.
This year has seen an unusually large number of clashes, however, including police firing on angry crowds and fighting between gangs of radicals and the security forces.
Militants typically armed only with bladed weapons and homemade explosives are heavily outgunned by an overwhelming security presence, while the authorities often respond to clashes with crackdowns and mass arrests.
Information about such incidents is tightly controlled and it is usually impossible to confirm the facts of individual clashes.
Even non-violent activity can be punished with heavy prison sentences if it is determined to be subversive or extremist in nature.
On Wednesday, the website of the ruling Communist Party's official People's Daily announced the sentencing of nine men to up to life in prison on charges of inciting ethnic hatred, ethnic discrimination, and conducting illegal religious activities.
Germany-based Uighur activist Dilshat Rexit said the heavy sentences were intended to intimidate and threaten the native population and the court proceedings lacked transparency.
"The goal is to divert attention from the real reasons Uighurs are protesting. The court's decision is made according to China's political needs," Rexit, whose name is also spelled Dilxat Raxit, said by telephone.