Sun, May 03, 2015 - Page 9 News List

China forces shot protesters, Xinjiang residents say

Locals tell a very different story from state media about a massacre in the mainly Muslim region last year

By Benjamin Haas  /  AFP, ELISHKU Township, China

Illustration: Kevin Sheu

Something hideously violent happened in China’s Elishku Township. Whether it was a separatist attack or a civilian massacre is shrouded in the mists of conflict, control, claim and counter-claim that plague China’s mainly Muslim Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

According to Chinese authorities, 96 civilians and “terrorists” died when militants attacked a police station in the township on July 28 last year. Residents, speaking to foreign media outlets for the first time, say that hundreds of people mounted a protest against government restrictions on religion that was brutally put down.

“Everyone who joined the crowd is either dead or in jail,” said Mahmouti, who hid in his nearby home with his then-pregnant wife. “No one has been heard from since; no one knows where they are now.”

It is by far the bloodiest incident in Beijing’s “strike hard” campaign against violence in Xinjiang, launched after an attack on a train station in the regional capital, Urumqi, April 30, 2014.

Allegations have swirled ever since the killings in Elishku, but information in the far-western region of China is hard to verify independently, and Agence France-Presse (AFP) was the first foreign news service to speak to locals on the scene.

Residents described more than 500 people — some carrying hoes, axes and other farm tools — marching down a dusty, tree-lined road to meet a line of security personnel armed with assault rifles.

Mahmouti heard the security personnel ordering the crowd to “Step back,” and moments later, a stream of gunfire. The shooting continued intermittently for hours, he added.

“Anyone who went out that day never came back,” said Yusup, a farmer who did not want to give his last name for fear of reprisals. “It was chaos; maybe as many as 1,000 people vanished.”

The villagers are Uighurs, a Turkic, mostly Muslim minority whose homeland is Xinjiang, but who have more in common culturally with Central Asia than the rest of Han-dominated China. Uighurs make up 46 percent of Xinjiang’s population, according to 2010 census figures, down from 75 percent in 1953.

Areas of the resource-rich region have at times been part of different states, including Russia, and at others independent, but it has largely been ruled by Beijing since the late 1800s.

It saw several 20th-century rebellions; in recent years occasional violence has become more frequent, sometimes spreading beyond the province.

A fatal 2013 car crash in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square struck at the heart of the Chinese state, and a mass stabbing that killed 31 people at Kunming Railway Station last year was dubbed “China’s 9/11” by state media. Another 39 civilians died in a bomb attack on a primarily Han market in Urumqi.

Beijing says Xinjiang violence and related attacks are carried out by separatist Muslim terrorists with overseas connections, but rights organizations blame cultural and religious repression.

Symbolically, the Urumqi station attack came as Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) visited the city. The ensuing crackdown has seen dozens of executions and death sentences officially announced and hundreds of arrests, followed by speedy mass trials.

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Elishku, in Yarkand County — or Shache in Chinese — has the atmosphere of a sleepy farming community, albeit with a massive security presence.

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