By Ben Blanchard and Chris Buckley
BEIJING (Reuters) - Attackers wielding knives killed 13 people in China's Xinjiang region before police shot seven of them dead, the government said, in the latest violence to strike the ethnically divided northwestern area.
Xinjiang's government said the killings on Tuesday night occurred on a busy pedestrian street in Yecheng County near Kashgar, a city in the south of Xinjiang that has been beset by tension between the mainly Muslim Uighur people and Han Chinese.
"Nine violent terrorists suddenly surged into the crowd and stabbed to death innocent people with their knives, causing 13 innocent people to die and injuring many," it said in a statement on official news portal www.tianshannet.com.
"Police rushed to the scene, handled the situation with resolution and shot dead seven violent terrorists, capturing two," it added.
The regional government did not identify any of the attackers or give their ethnicity. Nor did it identify the ethnicity of their victims.
Yecheng, also known by its Uighur name of Kargilik, is close to the disputed region of Kashmir, which is partly controlled by India and partly by Pakistan.
China has blamed earlier incidents of violence on religious hardliners who want to establish an independent state called East Turkestan. Some Chinese officials have also blamed attacks on Muslim militants trained in Pakistan.
But exiled Uighur groups and human rights activists say China overstates the threat posed by militants in Xinjiang, which sits astride south and central Asia.
"China's demonstrated lack of transparency when it comes to unrest in East Turkestan necessitates deep speculation of official Chinese claims," Uyghur American Association president Alim Seytoff said in an emailed statement.
"In the absence of compelling evidence, international observers should be extremely careful when hearing Chinese claims about 'rioters' and 'terrorists'."
"TERRORISTS AND SEPARATISTS"
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said the Yecheng incident should not be overblown.
"The overall situation in Xinjiang is good," Hong told a daily news briefing. "We firmly oppose a small group of violent terrorists and separatists destroying this kind of peaceful development and the calm ... conditions."
Uighurs account for just over 40 percent of the region's 21 million people. But they are the majority in Kashgar and other parts of the region's south and many chafe at government controls on their culture and religion.
The Global Times, a tabloid published by Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily, cited experts as saying that Yecheng was in the front line of China's war on terror because of its location.
"Over recent years it has had rather a large number of bad incidents and is an important area for maintaining stability in Xinjiang," Tuerwenjiang Tuerxun of the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences said in a report on the paper's website.
"It is close to the border, has been quote shut-off and remote for a long time, and is also quite a sensitive place."
In July 2009, Uighurs rioted against Han Chinese residents in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, killing at least 197 people, mostly Han, according to official estimates.
In January, authorities said that seven people killed by police in Xinjiang had been trying to leave the country to wage "holy war." [ID:nL3E8C453A]
In September 2010, courts in Xinjiang sentenced four people to death for violence in two cities in which 32 people were killed.
The government sees Xinjiang as a bulwark facing the predominantly Muslim countries of central Asia. The region, with a sixth of the country's land mass, is also rich in natural resources, including oil, coal and gas.
(Additional reporting by Sally Huang and Michael Martina; Editing by Robert Birsel)