KASHGAR - In a new sign of growing ethnic tension in Western China, at least 20 people were killed in a new outburst of violence in the country's Muslims-majority region of Xinjiang.
"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," Xinjiang's government said in a statement cited by Reuters.
"Police rushed to the scene, handled the situation with resolution and shot dead seven violent terrorists, capturing two.
Attackers armed with axes attacked people in a market in Yecheng County near Kashgar, a local policeman told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
The regional government did not identify any of the attackers or give their ethnicity. Nor did it identify the ethnicity of their victims.
However, the policeman said most of the victims were ethnic Han, though there were Uighur victims too.
Radio Free Asia, whose journalists talk regularly to Uighurs in the region, reported that a group of Uighurs killed three Han, and security officers then killed 12 Uighur youths.
Xinjiang was hit by deadly riots between Uighurs and Hans in 2009, which left nearly 200 people dead.
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."
In January, authorities said that seven people killed by police in Xinjiang had been trying to leave the country to wage "holy war."
In September 2010, courts in Xinjiang sentenced four people to death for violence in two cities in which 32 people were killed.
Xinjiang has been autonomous since 1955 but continues to be the subject of massive security crackdowns by Chinese authorities.
Rights groups accuse Chinese authorities of religious repression against Uighur Muslims, a Turkish-speaking minority of eight million, in Xinjiang in the name of counter terrorism.
But exiled Uighur groups and human rights activists say China overstates the threat posed by militants in Xinjiang.
"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 to Reuters.
"In the absence of compelling evidence, international observers should be extremely careful when hearing Chinese claims about 'rioters' and 'terrorists'."
Following the 2009 violence, the long-serving party chief of Xinjiang,Wang Lequan, was replaced.
Though Uighurs initially held hopes that the new party leader, Zhang Chunxian, would adopt a softer line and tackle Uighur complaint, the hopes quickly faded away.
Zhang Chunxian brought a new style, but the policies haven't changed, Nicholas Bequelin, a senior Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, said in an e-mail cited by The New York Times.
They were laid out at the Xinjiang work conference in 2010. These policies promised a rapid boost to the local economy which has happened but absent from this blueprint were the issues that top the list of the Uighur discontent: discrimination, Han in-migration and the ever-more invasive curbs on language, culture, religious expression.
Muslims accuses the government of settling millions of ethnic Han in their territory with the ultimate goal of obliterating its identity and culture.
And analysts say the policy of transferring Han Chinese to Xinjiang to consolidate Beijing's authority has increased the proportion of Han in the region from five percent in the 1940s to more than 40 percent now.
The government has recently announced measures to increase ethnic minority's access to jobs, but Uighurs and analysts say the rules are not always respected.Beijing views the vast region of Xinjiang as an invaluable asset because of its crucial strategic location near Central Asia and its large oil and gas reserves.