Chinese paramilitary troops have begun round-the-clock patrols in the country’s huge north-western region of Xinjiang following a series of bloody clashes that have killed at least 56 people over the last several months.
The deadliest unrest in years was carried out by a gang engaged in “religious extremist activities”, state media reported, saying the group had been busy buying weapons and raising money.
Beijing initially called the most serious incident in which 35 people were killed in a “terrorist attack”. Details of the incident only emerged in the past few days, even though it occurred last week.
Xinjiang is home to the mainly Muslim Uighur people who speak a Turkic language. Many deeply resent what they see as Chinese government restrictions on their culture, language and religion. Beijing accuses extremists of separatism.
The order for the patrols by the People’s Armed Police was issued by the ruling Communist Party’s top law enforcement official, Meng Jianzhu, at an emergency meeting late on Saturday in Xinjiang’s regional capital, Urumqi. The action came just days ahead of the 5 July anniversary of a 2009 riot between Xinjiang’s native Uighur people and Han Chinese migrants in the city that left nearly 200 people dead.
Troops must patrol in all-weather conditions, “raise their visibility, maintain a deterrent threat and strengthen the public’s sense of security,” Mr Meng said, according to a notice posted to the public security ministry’s website.
The animosity between the majority Han Chinese and the Uighurs poses a major challenge for China’s Communist Party leaders. President Xi Jinping, who took office in March, has called for the unity of all ethnic groups in China.
According to reports on the government website of Xinjiang and the state news agency Xinhua, last week’s attacks occurred after police arrested a member of the gang.
The next day the same gang went on a rampage in the remote township of Lukqun, about 120 miles south-east of Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi.
The group attacked a police station, shops and a construction site. A total of 24 civilians, both Uighur and Han Chinese, and police were killed, along with 11 gang members.
“Since February, Ahmatniyaz Siddiq and others were engaged in religious extremist activities, listening to violent terrorist recordings,” said the reports. “They formed a violent terrorist group of 17 members, and since mid-June were raising money, and buying knives, gasoline and other tools for crime.”
“Terrorist organisations should be aware that the Chinese nation and its people are determined to safeguard the country’s territorial integrity and national unity against all enemies,” Xinhua said in a separate commentary yesterday. “Any attempt to sabotage will eventually fail.”
Two days after the deadly attack, more than a hundred people, riding motorbikes and wielding knives, attacked a police station in Xinjiang.
Bordering Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Xinjiang has long been home to a simmering rebellion against Chinese rule among parts of the Uighur population opposed to large-scale Han Chinese migration and angered by strict communist restrictions on Islam and their Turkic language and cultural institutions.
However, recent incidents point to a growing level of violence and the apparently growing influence of radical Islam, in spite of a massive security presence spread across the vast region, which is almost six times the size of the UK.