Shouting Allahu Akbar (“God is great”), they brushed past a dozen police officers who tried to block them. However, after entering the highway to Hotan, they were confronted by a line of paramilitary police atop a pedestrian bridge. According to one account, some marchers carried farm implements; others said some waved lengths of wood.
Uyghur American Association president Alim Seytoff said the marchers hesitated, then surged forward.
“It seems then the soldiers got nervous and opened fire,” he said.
What happened next is unclear, but several sources, including local officials, said the police continued to shoot, picking off those who tried to flee, including a number of people on motorcycles.
Hotan County People’s Congress chairman Abdulhekim Weliyop confirmed some details with Radio Free Asia.
“Yes, a terrible tragedy happened,” he said.
The following day, he said Uighur officials were made to watch video footage of the marchers and asked to identify them.
Yusup Imin Tohti, the CCP secretary of a neighboring village, said he had heard that 37 people had died. The South China Morning Post, citing two local sources, put the toll as high as 60. Local officials said at least 200 people were arrested.
Hotan security officials declined to discuss the episode, and an office in Urumqi that handles inquiries from foreign media refused to answer faxed questions.
A day after the episode, a 29-year-old Uighur doctor who works at a hospital outside Hotan said that county officials warned the staff against treating patients with gunshot wounds.
“We were told we would be arrested,” he said.
The bodies of those killed were taken to the desert and burned, he said.
Weliyop blamed the young imam from Hanerik for the bloody confrontation.
“He constantly talked about a holy war, and his preaching violated the government’s line,” he said. “Young people were incited by his teaching, and they lost their lives.”
However, few residents in Hotan see it that way, saying that the protesters were unarmed.
“The Chinese killed our brothers in the street like they were dogs,” a young taxi driver named Yusuf said. “We will have our revenge.”