Six people died in explosions and another six were shot dead by police in fresh violence in China’s restive western region of Xinjiang, home to the ethnic minority of Turkish Muslim Uighurs, state media reported.
China’s state-run media called the violence an act of terrorism, but a spokesman of an advocacy group for the Uighurs said it was the latest example of brutal suppression by Chinese authorities.
Assailants threw explosives at police in Xinhe County in Aksu Prefecture on Friday during a clash in which police killed six of the attackers, according to the Tianshan news portal, which is run by the regional Chinese Communist Party.
The official Xinhua news agency said the clash followed a pair of explosions in Xinhe town as police were attempting to make arrests.
An earlier Xinhua report said the blasts hit a hair salon and a produce market in Xinhe. Later, a vehicle exploded after it was surrounded by police.
Both Xinhua and the regional news portal said that another six people died in self-ignited blasts, but did not provide details.
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, said the clashes started when angry Uighurs protested the sale of whole pigs in the market on Friday, a Muslim holy day, and that the hair salon was a brothel in disguise.
“The Chinese vendors used to sell pork by jin but now they are hanging up the entire carcasses,” Dilxat Raxit said.
Pigs are considered unclean by Muslims and they are forbidden from eating pork.
He said police opened fire on the crowds and on a vehicle that was leaving, causing its fuel tank to explode.
“It is not possible for the Uighurs to have weapons, given the tight controls by the authorities,” Dilxat Raxit said.
Chinese state media said the case was under investigation.
Xinjiang is home to low-intensity insurgency by the native Uighurs against what they see as discrimination and religious suppression by China’s majority Han people. The government has responded with a crackdown on what it calls terrorism incited by separatists who are influenced by radical Islam.
Last year, clashes between authorities and members of the minority group left scores dead, including 40 police officers. The violence also included an unprecedented attack on Tiananmen Gate in Beijing that killed three Uighur assailants and two tourists.
Dilxat Raxit said that Beijing should rethink its ethnic policies in the Xinjiang region. “If they do not cease, chaos will continue,” he said.