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Deadly clash at police checkpoint in China's restless Xinjiang Province

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Ng Han Guan/AP/File

(Read caption) Chinese paramilitary police on patrol in Urumqi, western China's Xinjiang province in July 2009.

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The worst violence in the Chinese province of Xinjiang in many months erupted earlier this week between ethnic Uighur Muslims and Chinese police, as the Holy Month of Ramadan began.

Between 18 and 30 people were killed and more injured in an attack on a police checkpoint in Kashgar, an ancient Muslim city along the storied Silk Road through Central Asia.  

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A Radio Free Asia dispatch corroborated by the New York Times says that the incident happened on Monday. A car driven by Uighurs refused to stop at a checkpoint, then backed up hitting a police officer and breaking his leg. Two people emerged from the car and stabbed unarmed traffic police, at which point other assailants joined in what became a larger fray. 

RFA quotes a local policeman Turghun Memet, saying: 

By the time armed police reached the scene, three more suspects had arrived by sidecar motorcycle and attacked the checkpoint and police cars with explosives, killing one regular police officer, another traffic policeman and one auxiliary officer...

At that point, our [armed officers] arrived and killed 15 suspects we designated as terrorists.

The Times writes that:

A police officer, who did not give his name because he was not permitted to talk to foreign news organizations, confirmed [the clash] and sent a photo of a document, which he said was a police notice…It said that 15 attackers and two police officers had been killed and that the police had seized more than 100 firebombs, seven explosive devices and three large knives.

Relations are tense between Xinjiang's 40 percent ethnic Uighur population and Chinese authorities. Turkic-speaking Uighurs accuse Beijing of making them second class citizens and of efforts to strip them of their cultural identity, and of repression and policies hostile to their faith of Islam.

Last fall a prominent Uighur scholar, Ilham Tohti, was arrested and later sentenced to life in prison. Human rights organizations objected that Mr. Tohti was a moderate who had tried to bridge differences and create dialogue. 

It's unclear what spurred Monday's attack, which wasn't reported in China's official media. But it comes amid a series of prohibitions and official strictures on Muslim behavior during Ramadan.

In recent weeks, reports Pakistan Today, Uighur officials and community leaders were asked to take an oath not to fast, part of the religious requirement for devout Muslims. And restaurant owners in Xinjiang were told to keep their establishments open all day or face visits by government inspectors. 

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In recent days, [Chinese] state media and government websites in Xinjiang have published stories and official notices demanding that party members, civil servants, students and teachers in particular do not observe [Ramadan] something that happened last year too.

One “government worker” in Xinjiang told RFA, a US government-funded news service, that the latest attacks were correlated with Ramadan because of laws in the locality that apparently forbid children and youth under 18 from joining any formal religious observance.

“I think this is the first reaction to this year’s Ramadan restrictions,” he said.

“If such restrictions were implemented in other parts of the [Muslim] world, they would have led to bloody incidents on a mass scale, but we Uyghurs are a defenseless and helpless people and this is the reaction.”

Since the 1990s, China has instituted a variety of “strike hard” campaigns in Xinjiang, framed as a reaction to the emergence of a now-largely defunct “East Turkistan” armed separatist group. The campaigns have a military dimension to them, with sweeps of neighborhoods and villages and mass arrests and detentions.

The New York Times reports that arrests of Uighurs in the latest "strike hard" campaign are double those made in 2013.