BEIJING - Chinese paramilitary troops began conducting round-the-clock patrols Sunday in the northwestern region of Xinjiang following a series of bloody clashes that have killed at least 56 people over the last several months.
The order for the patrols by the People's Armed Police was issued by the ruling Communist Party's top law enforcement official, Men Jianzhu, at an emergency meeting late Saturday. The action comes just days ahead of the July 5 anniversary of a 2009 riot between Xinjiang's native Uighur people and Han Chinese migrants in the regional capital Urumqi that killed nearly 200 people.
Troops must patrol in all weather conditions "raise their visibility, maintain a deterrent threat and strengthen the public's sense of security," Meng said, according to a notice posted to the Public Security Ministry's website
"The determination of the 'three forces' at home and abroad to create chaos in our Xinjiang remains alive and they are taking every opportunity to devise and carry out activities to make trouble and sow destruction," Meng said. The three forces is China's standard term for anti-government foes representing separatism, terrorism and religious extremism.
Bordering Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Xinjiang (shihn-jeeahng) has long been home to a simmering rebellion against Chinese rule among parts of the Uighur (WEE'-gur) population opposed to large-scale Han Chinese migration, and angered by strict communist restrictions on Islam and their Turkic language and cultural institutions.
However, recent incidents point to a growing level of violence and the apparently growing influence of radical Islam, in spite of a massive security presence spread across the vast region more than twice the size of Texas.
At least 35 people were killed on Wednesday when assailants attacked police and government offices in the town of Lukqun in Xinjiang's usually quiet east in one of the bloodiest incidents since the 2009 Urumqi rampage. Few details have been given and authorities searching for suspects have sealed off the area. Other independent reports put the death toll as high as 46, including 11 assailants.
And on Friday, more than 100 knife-wielding people mounted motorbikes in an attempt to storm the police station in Karakax county in southern Xinjiang's Hotan region where the population is overwhelmingly Uighur. Elsewhere on Friday, an armed mob staged an attack in the township of Hanairike, according to the news portal of the Xinjiang regional government. Few details were given about the incidents and there was no official word on deaths, injuries or arrests.
However, U.S. government-backed Radio Free Asia said at least two Uighurs were killed in the Karakax violence, which it said began after Friday prayers at a local mosque that had been raided the week before by police because its resident Imam had defied strict rules on sermon topics. The station said police fired at Uighurs on motorcycles who were chanting religious slogans and the violence later spread to the city of Hotan, where groups of young men set fires along a major downtown road.
The recent wave of violence began with a deadly clash on April 24 in western Xinjiang that left 21 people dead, including police officers and local government officials. The government said the violence broke out after neighborhood security inspectors uncovered a bomb-making ring that was planning a major attack in the city of Kashgar.
In that and other incidents, the attackers were reportedly inspired by jihadist teachings and literature smuggled into the country or downloaded from the Internet. China has accused Uighur activists based overseas of orchestrating the 2009 violence in Urumqi and plotting other incidents, charges the groups have denied, saying they are merely advocating for Uighur civil and religious rights.
One overseas group, the Washington, D.C.-based Uyghur American Association, which uses a different spelling of Uighur, has called for an independent investigation into Wednesday's incident in Lukqun and questioned the government's claim that it was an act of terrorism.
While the loss of life was "extremely upsetting," China is worsening tensions by ratcheting up security and treating all Uighurs with hostility, the group's president, Alim Seytoff, said in a statement.
"The way the Chinese state has managed this incident follows a pattern familiar to others that have happened in the past. After imposing a blackout of news and maintaining tight control of information, the state then uses its propaganda apparatus to label the incident 'terrorism' without presenting any evidence that can be independently proved," Seytoff said.
State-run newspapers reported Sunday that Xinjiang was calm, and state broadcaster CCTV ran interviews with pro-government Muslim clerics and residents of Urumqi, both Chinese and Uighur, who denounced violence and expressed confidence in the government's ability to maintain security.
China has also sought to enlist other countries in the region in the fight against violence in Xinjiang, and on Saturday the national legislature ratified a pair of agreements on anti-terrorism cooperation and joint drills under the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a Chinese and Russian-dominated grouping of Central Asian states.