Ethnic religious extremists armed with homemade weapons attacked a police station in China's restive far west earlier this week in a planned siege that ended with 14 of the 18 attackers dead, China said Wednesday in a new detailed account of the violence.
State media variously have blamed terrorists, rioters or thugs for Monday's violence in the Xinjiang region. An exile group that advocates for greater Uighur autonomy instead has said a peaceful protest turned into a bloody clash between police and demonstrators.
Xinjiang has been beset by ethnic conflict and a sometimes-violent separatist movement by Uighurs (pronounced WEE'-gurs), a largely Muslim ethnic group that sees Xinjiang as its homeland. Many Uighurs resent the Han Chinese majority as interlopers.
A group of "religious extremists" opposed to the Chinese government arrived two days earlier in Hotan and organized the terror attack in the city, a Xinjiang regional government spokeswoman told The Associated Press.
"They arrived in groups on the 16th with several dozen different knives including cleavers, axes and switchblades," the spokeswoman, Hou Hanmin, said. "They also went to a local market to buy other knives and materials to make molotov cocktails and homemade bombs."
The men first stabbed a Uighur security guard at the gate of the police station before storming inside. They later took several hostages, including two female Han Chinese who were stabbed to death. A Han Chinese paramilitary officer was killed by a bomb the attackers set off, she said.
Four other hostages, all Uighur, were also injured, she said.
"The attack was not about ethnicity," Hou said, "They were charging into the police station to oppose the government and create violence."
Hou said the men took down a Chinese flag at the station and raised a black flag with Arabic writing on it but she couldn't say what the writing meant. They were "shouting slogans like 'Sacred War' and 'Allah,'" she said.
Hou said, however, the flag did not resemble ones used by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, or ETIM, a banned organization advocating independence for Xinjiang. China says that group is allied with al-Qaida.
China has said an ETIM cell was behind a pair of deadly attacks aimed at disrupting the 2008 Beijing Olympics that reportedly killed 29 people, including 10 attackers.
Police shot to death 14 of the men and four were detained, Hou said, adding an investigation was continuing into Monday's violence.
Earlier English-language reports by the official Xinhua News Agency referred to the men as rioters or thugs and did not mention terrorism. The earlier state media accounts did not describe the attack in detail or say how many assailants had been involved.
A Germany-based Uighur exile group, the World Uyghur Congress, based its account of the violence on anonymous Uighur sources in Xinjiang. The group said in an emailed statement that the violence erupted when more than 100 Uighurs gathered to protest a police crackdown in the city. Demonstrators were demanding to know the status of missing relatives they believe were in police custody, the group said.
It said the protest turned into a clash and police opened fire. WUC spokesman Dilxat Raxit said by telephone Wednesday that 20 Uighurs were killed and 12 injured, including 3 in critical condition. He also demanded an independent investigation into the violence.
Hou called the group's account "utter nonsense."
"There was no so-called peaceful protest at all," she said.
Obtaining independent information from Xinjiang is difficult because government controls on the local population are tight and people fear speaking out may get them into trouble.
Two years ago in Xinjiang's regional capital of Urumqi, simmering tensions erupted in the region's worst ethnic violence in more than a decade. Uighurs attacked Han Chinese, overturning buses and cars and torching shops in a riot the government says killed 197 people, mostly Hans. In the aftermath, hundreds were arrested in a region-wide crackdown and about two dozen sentenced to death. Many other Uighurs remain unaccounted for and are believed to be in custody.