Initial reports said 27 people were killed Wednesday in a remote town in the Xinjiang region, with state-run media saying that knife-wielding assailants launched early-morning attacks targeting police stations, a government building and a construction site -- all symbols of Han authority and influx in the region.
An exiled Uighur activist disputed that account, saying the violence started when police raided homes overnight.
The updated death toll included some of the severely injured dying in the hospital. It also included 11 assailants shot dead in Lukqun township in Turpan prefecture, the state-run Xinhua News agency said. Two police officers were among the 24 people they killed, Xinhua said.
"This is a terrorist attack, there's no question about that," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Friday at a regular news briefing. "As to who masterminded it, local people are still investigating."
State news reports did not identify the ethnicity of the attackers, nor explain what may have caused the conflict in the Turkic-speaking region, where Uighurs complain of suppression and discrimination by Han people. The report also said police captured four injured assailants.
Also on Friday, Chinese state media reported another violent incident in Xinjiang's Hotan city, though details on any casualties were not immediately known. Phone services appeared to be temporarily down Friday afternoon, and calls to several government agencies could not go through.
The Wednesday violence -- also described as a terrorist act by state media -- was one of the bloodiest incidents since unrest in the region's capital city of Urumqi killed nearly 200 in 2009.
Photos released in state media show scorched police cars and government buildings and victims lying on the ground -- presumably dead.
It was impossible to independently confirm the state-run media accounts. The Global Times newspaper said police set up many checkpoints along the 30-kilometer (19-mile) road to Lukqun and dissuaded reporters from traveling there due to safety concerns. It said heavy security has been necessary because some suspects remained on the run.
An official who gave only his family name of Bao and works at the news office for the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau said Friday he had no more information than in state media. Calls to the region's party propaganda office and the regional government's news office were not answered Friday.
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress, said local residents were prevented from entering mosques for Friday prayers. Dilxat Raxit raised questions about Beijing's account of the event, saying local residents had told him police had forcefully raided homes at night, triggering the deadly conflicts.
Xinjiang is home to a large population of minority Muslim Uighurs in a region that borders Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan and has been the scene of numerous violent acts in recent years, including the riots in the capital four years ago.
Critics have attributed the violence, including Wednesday's deadly clashes, to Beijing's oppressive and discriminatory ethnicity policies. Many Uighurs complain that Beijing imposes tight restrictions on their religious and cultural life, barring children and women from attending mosques and discouraging fasting during the Muslim month of Ramadan, which starts this year in early July.
The Chinese government says all ethnic groups are treated equally and that the violence is terrorism with no connection to religion or ethnicity. It points to billions of dollars it has invested in modernizing Xinjiang, a strategically vital region with significant oil and gas deposits.
Beijing often accuses overseas Uighur activists of orchestrating violence and obscure militant groups sometimes take responsibility, with little or no evidence to prove claims on either side.
Information is tightly controlled in the region, which the Chinese government regards as highly sensitive and where it has imposed a heavy security presence to quell unrest. However, forces are spread thin across the vast territory and the response from authorities is often slow.
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