At least five police officers have reportedly died after being stabbed in a knife attack at a coal mine in Aksu, Xinjiang on Friday, September 18. Reuters reports, citing earlier coverage from Radio Free Asia:
The attack was “a long-planned, well-prepared, large-scale attack by separatists against police officers and mine owners at a coal field in our county”, according to a government notice cited by Radio Free Asia.
Repeated calls to the Xinjiang government and public security departments were not answered. Such incidents are frequently reported in overseas media but not confirmed by the Chinese government until days later, if ever.
[…] Tensions between Muslim Uighurs that call the region home and the majority Han Chinese have resulted in bloodshed in recent years. Hundreds have been killed in violence across the region, blamed by Beijing on Islamist militants.
Exiled Uighur groups and human rights activists say repressive government policies in Xinjiang, including controls on Islam and Uighur culture, have provoked unrest, a claim that Beijing denies. [Source]
RFA’s report has more details on the attack, noting that at least 40 were killed or injured:
The attack began at around 3:00 a.m. on Sept. 18 when a group of knife-wielding suspects set upon security guards at the Sogan Colliery in Aksu (in Chinese, Akesu) prefecture’s Bay (Baicheng) county, Jamal Eysa, the chief of state security police at a neighboring mine in the county seat told RFA’s Uyghur Service Monday.
“The attack started at security gate of the colliery, which was watched by some 20 security guards at the time,” he said.
[…] Eysa estimated that “at least 40 people were killed or injured, including police officers, security guards, mine owners and managers, and attackers.” Relatives informed him that his friend Zakirjan, who worked as a security guard at Sogan, was among those killed.
[…] “Even though four days have passed since the incident, raiding operations are ongoing, so I believe that at least some of the attackers are alive and on the run.” [Source]
An upswing in violence in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China, blamed by authorities on separatists and religious extremists from Xinjiang, prompted the central government last May to launch an ongoing “war against terror.” The campaign has included enhanced security measures; intelligence gathering relying on official efforts, drone surveillance, and also cash rewards for community members; as well as the controversial targeting of religious and cultural customs observed by many Uyghurs. Reuters’ Ben Blanchard reports on a softer method aimed at shoring up “ethnic unity” in the troubled region: teaching military forces in the region Uyghur language and folk tradition:
China’s military has been teaching its soldiers in the unruly region of Xinjiang folk dances and songs as part of efforts to improve relations with the minority people who live there, it said on Wednesday.
[…] Chinese forces in Xinjiang, which also borders Central Asia, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan, are at the “center of the storm” when it comes to fighting militants and separatists, the Communist Party committee for the Xinjiang military command wrote in the official People’s Liberation Army Daily.
[…] Soldiers have also told to get closer to the people by learning the languages, folk songs and folk dances of the peoples of Xinjiang to “make friends with the minority masses”, the command said.
“With face-to-face communication and heart-to-heart exchanges (we can) increase ethnic unity and feelings, like the closeness between fish and water,” it said. [Source]
At a conference in Beijing, senior Xinjiang officials also drew attention to an emphasis on winning hearts and minds in Xinjiang.
Amid the crackdown in Xinjiang, Uyghur intellectual Ilham Tohti was sentenced to life in prison last September for separatism, sparking an outcry from diplomats and human rights advocates, and criticism that such a harsh sentence could serve to increase unrest in the region. Ahead of Xi Jinping’s first state visit to the U.S., members of the international human rights community drew attention to the situation in China. In an open letter to Xi calling for the release of jailed writers, PEN America included Ilham Tohti on their list. Ilham’s daughter Jewher Tohti, whose efforts to draw attention to her father’s plight have been relentless since his arrest in early 2014, praises her father’s strength, and criticizes Beijing’s broader crackdown on dissent in a post at PEN America:
I remain very proud that my father has such strength of spirit. It takes a singular person to maintain a positive mental outlook under such brutal conditions. But it is hard not just for him—our family also suffers. My family can visit him only once every three months. This visitation schedule, which is more strict than for other prisoners, began only recently. My two younger brothers, both of whom very much need their father’s care and love, saw him on July 8 for the first time in over a year and a half. And the father whom they finally saw again was suddenly and shockingly pale, haggard, and thin in their eyes. At just four and seven years old, they can still remember clearly their father’s voice and the experience of care and affection from him that was part of their young lives so long ago. And so they waited for ages for this short meeting, one that brought in its wake more longing, endless tears, and another wait of three months.
This is excruciating for us, the children of Ilham Tohti. Proud as I am to be his daughter, I worry day and night about him, shackled and behind bars in one of China’s crueler prisons. My father has striven to bridge the gap between Chinese and Uyghurs through dialogue alone. When restrictions were placed on the outlets in which he might publish, he turned to the internet. Anyone who has read his writings knows that he is anything but an extremist. He never hid his authorship and he made his opposition to violence very clear.
Think of what it means for China when an advocate of understanding through dialogue receives the most severe of punishments: life imprisonment for the peaceful expression of his views. As Uyghurs and other Chinese citizens with legitimate concerns about Beijing’s oppression continue to be silenced, extremists emerge from the shadows to occupy that space with a message that drives China further and further away from the “social harmony” its leaders profess, and that my father worked for. This policy of silencing peaceful dissent has set China on a frightening path, and the fate of my father will tell whether this is indeed to be its future. [Source]
Amnesty International also reiterated criticism of Chinese authorities treatment of Ilham Tohti:
The life sentence handed down by a Chinese court to prominent Uighur academic Ilham Tohti on charges of “separatism” is an affront to justice, Amnesty International said.
“This shameful judgement has no basis in reality. Ilham Tohti worked to peacefully build bridges between ethnic communities and for that he has been punished through politically motivated charges,” said William Nee, China Researcher at Amnesty International.
“Tohti is a prisoner of conscience and the Chinese authorities must immediately and unconditionally release him.”
Through his work as an academic and writer, Tohti has tried to build mutual understanding between Uighurs and Han Chinese in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR), amid rising ethnic tensions in the region. He founded the website Uighur Online and is an outspoken critic of Beijing’s policies in the XUAR. […] [Source]
Meanwhile, British chancellor George Osborne, who was in Xinjiang as news of the coal mine attack surfaced, is facing criticism for failing to raise the issue of government repression in Xinjiang as activists had called on him to do.