21 Killed in Clash With Xinjiang “Terrorists”

A violent confrontation between officials and police and armed men left 21 people dead and eight more in custody near the Xinjiang city of Kashgar on Tuesday. From Christopher Bodeen at The Associated Press:

Among the dead in the Tuesday afternoon fighting were 15 police officers and local government officials, the Xinjiang government propaganda office said in a news release. It said six assailants were killed on the spot and another eight were captured alive.

“Initial investigations show this was a gang plotting to carry out terrorist acts and the case is now being further cracked open,” the release said.

A leading activist from the region’s indigenous Turkic Muslim Uighur ethnic group questioned the official account, saying local sources said that police sparked the incident by shooting a Uighur youth during an illegal search of homes.

CNN provided more details on the alleged terrorist activity:

[…] Hou Hanmin, spokesperson for the Xinjiang government […] told CNN that some of the captured assailants said under interrogation that they had watched videos “from overseas” that featured violence and acts of terrorism.

“Then they made those large, lethal knives and wanted to use them for Jihad,” she said, referring to the Arabic term meaning “struggle.”

“They had been training in their own house for several months. They were affected by extremism and hoped to commit themselves to Jihad.”

But Human Rights Watch’s Nicholas Bequelin urged caution about claims that terrorism was involved. From Tania Branigan at The Guardian:

“China has made many unproven and questionable statements about terrorism in the region. That does not mean there isn’t anti-state violence happening there, but we should take with a lot of caution any claim of terrorism,” said Nicholas Bequelin, senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

He added: “There are a lot of deaths and a dearth of explanation about them. Every time an incident has been investigated, it brings up elements that challenge profoundly the version put out by authorities.”

He noted that there were criminal gangs in Xinjiang that could not necessarily be linked to terrorism, and added: “Anything that is outside of state-controlled religion is viewed by the Chinese government as illegal religious activity – and anything viewed as illegal religious activity is in turn associated with terrorism.”

Bequelin added, on Twitter:

Commentators in the U.S., meanwhile, have been embroiled in their own disputes over the terrorism label following last week’s Boston Marathon bombing and the dramatic ensuing manhunt. For Zhu Zhangping at China’s Global Times, the attack’s Chechen connection highlighted America’s “double standards on terror”:

[…] For the US, the sole power enjoying global leadership, it faces terrorism threats from overseas and it fights against terrorism actually only for the sake of its own and its allies’ safety.

As to Chechen separatists and Eastern Turkistan activists, the big headaches for Russia and China respectively, the US always takes two approaches.

On the one hand, the US defined some Chechen separatists as terrorist entities. On the other hand, the US often blamed the Russian government’s violation of ethnic groups’ human rights.

[…] The US does the same to the Xinjiang separatists. The US has only put the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, one of about 50 Eastern Turkistan groups, on its terrorist list. [AP's Christopher Bodeen notes that ETIM was "later quietly removed […] amid doubts that it existed in any organized manner.“] On the other hand, it praises separatist head Rebiya Kadeer as a “prominent human rights advocate” and finances her group. Such double standards are often interpreted as making trouble to contain China’s rise, while hitting the most dangerous group that is most closely linked to Al Qaeda.

[…] Before it can trace any hints that the Xinjiang separatists may attack the US, the US will not easily abandon these troublemakers in its attempts to slow China’s rapid development and expanding power projection.