Chinese paramilitary troops have begun round-the-clock patrols in the country’s northwestern region of Xinjiang following a series of bloody clashes that have left at least 56 people dead over recent months.
Police also released new details about a clash on Wednesday that authorities said left 35 people dead, including 11 attackers, blaming it on Muslim extremists.
The order for the patrols by the People’s Armed Police was issued by the ruling Communist Party’s top law enforcement official, Meng Jianzhu, at an emergency meeting in Xinjiang’s regional capital, Urumqi. The action came just days ahead of the July 5 anniversary of a 2009 riot between Xinjiang’s native Uighur people and Han Chinese migrants in the city that left nearly 200 people dead.
Troops must patrol in all weather conditions, “raise their visibility, maintain a deterrent threat and strengthen the public’s sense of security,” Mr Meng said, according to a notice posted to the Public Security Ministry’s website.
Bordering Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Xinjiang has long been home to a simmering rebellion against Chinese rule among parts of the Uighur 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, which is more than twice the size of Texas.
In Wednesday’s incident, assailants attacked police and government offices in the town of Lukqun in the region’s usually quiet east in one of the bloodiest incidents since the 2009 Urumqi rampage.
Authorities searching for suspects have sealed off the area. Other independent reports put the death toll as high as 46.
According to a police statement posted on the Xinjiang government’s official website, the attackers belonged to a 17-member extremist Islamic cell formed in January by a man identified by the Chinese pronunciation of his Uighur name, Aihemaitiniyazi Sidike.
The statement said the cell regularly listened to recordings promoting violence and terrorism and since mid-June had been raising funds, buying knives and petrol, and casing various sites in preparation for an attack.
On Tuesday, however, authorities captured one of the members, and fearing they would be discovered before they could act, Sidike ordered the gang to assemble before dawn Wednesday and attack, the statement said. It said their 24 victims included 16 Uighurs, eight Han and two women.