BEIJING — A group of axe-wielding men attacked a market in the volatile Xinjiang region of northwest China, home to the mainly Muslim Uighur minority, leaving at least 12 people dead, police and state media said.
The motive behind the attack late on Tuesday was not immediately clear, although Xinjiang has suffered repeated outbreaks of ethnic unrest in recent years that the government has routinely blamed on separatists and terrorists.
Around a dozen Uighurs attacked the market in the remote town of Yecheng, killing 10 people, a police officer told AFP by telephone.
Police then shot five of the attackers dead, he said.
The state Xinhua news agency put the number of assailants killed at two, and said the men were armed with knives.
Calls to local government offices went unanswered.
The vast region, which borders Pakistan and Afghanistan, is home to around nine million Uighurs who complain of oppression under Chinese rule. The number of Han -- China's dominant ethnic group -- living in the region has increased dramatically over the last decade.
"At around 5.30 or 6.00 pm around a dozen rioters carrying axes appeared in the market, in an area that is mostly populated by Han people," said the officer, who gave only his surname Tuo, referring to China's dominant ethnic group.
"Most of the victims were Han people, but some were Uighurs. Five rioters were shot, not two, and they were all Uighurs."
Authorities in Xinjiang said last month they plan to recruit 8,000 extra police officers as China strengthens security in the run-up to a major leadership transition later this year.
The World Uighur Congress, a German-based exile group, said authorities in Yecheng had detained 84 people and have closed off all exits and entries.
Seven of the 12 killed on Tuesday were Chinese armed patrol personnel, it said, citing local sources.
"The incident happened because Uighurs can no longer bear China's systematic repression, and are using primitive fighting methods to resist," said a statement by Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the group.
Raxit blamed a "huge influx" of Han Chinese immigrants and official discrimination against Uighurs for the violence.
"Uighurs have been completely stripped of any peaceful ways of resisting," he said. "China's repressive measures and the provocation of immigrants are the main reasons behind the incident."
Xinjiang has been under heavy security since July 2009, when Uighurs launched attacks on members of China's dominant Han group in the regional capital Urumqi.
The government says nearly 200 people were killed and 1,700 injured in the violence, which shattered the authoritarian Communist Party's claims of harmony and unity among the country's dozens of ethnic groups.
Many Uighurs remain angry over the arrests or alleged disappearances of people rounded up across the region in the aftermath of the 2009 violence.
In December, seven people were killed in Pishan county in what the government described as a hostage rescue operation after "terrorists" kidnapped two people.
Exiles, however, said the incident was a conflict between regular Uighurs and policemen prompted by mounting discontent over a crackdown and religious repression in the area.
The region was also hit by three deadly attacks last July that left dozens dead.
The government blames much of the violence in the resource-rich region on what it calls the three "evil forces" of extremism, separatism and terrorism.
But some experts doubt terror cells operate in Xinjiang, where Turkic-speaking Uighurs practise a moderate form of Islam.
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