BEIJING — Chinese paramilitary troops began round-the-clock patrols Sunday in the country's northwestern region of Xinjiang following a series of bloody clashes that have killed at least 56 people over the last several months.
Police also released new details about a clash Wednesday that authorities said left 35 people dead, including 11 attackers, blaming it on a violent gang of 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 late Saturday 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," Meng said, according to a notice posted to the Public Security Ministry's website.
Bordering Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Xinjiang (shihn-jeeahng) has long been home to a simmering rebellion against Chinese rule among parts of the Uighur (WEE'-gur) 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 gasoline, 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.
Police wounded and captured four gang members and seized the last suspect on Sunday following a search.
Following that incident, more than 100 knife-wielding people mounted motorbikes in an attempt to storm the police station Friday in Karakax county in southern Xinjiang's Hotan region, where the population is overwhelmingly Uighur. Elsewhere the same day, an armed mob staged an attack in the township of Hanairike, according to the Xinjiang regional government's news portal. Few details were given about the incidents and there was no official word on deaths, injuries or arrests.
However, U.S. government-backed Radio Free Asia said at least two Uighurs were killed in the Karakax violence, which it said began after Friday prayers at a local mosque that had been raided the week before by police because its resident Imam had defied strict rules on sermon topics. The violence later spread to the city of Hotan, where groups of young men set fires along a major downtown road.
The recent wave of violence began with a deadly clash on April 24 in western Xinjiang that left 21 people dead, including police officers and local government officials. The government said the violence broke out after neighborhood security inspectors uncovered a bomb-making ring that was planning a major attack in the city of Kashgar.
In that and other incidents, the attackers were reportedly inspired by jihadist teachings and literature smuggled into the country or downloaded from the Internet. China has accused Uighur activists based overseas of orchestrating the 2009 violence in Urumqi and plotting other incidents, charges the groups have denied, saying they are merely advocating for Uighur civil and religious rights.
One overseas group, the Washington, D.C.-based Uyghur American Association, which uses a different spelling of Uighur, has called for an independent investigation into Wednesday's incident in Lukqun and questioned the government's claim that it was an act of terrorism.
While the loss of life was "extremely upsetting," China is worsening tensions by ratcheting up security and treating all Uighurs with hostility, the group's president, Alim Seytoff, said in a statement.
State-run newspapers reported Sunday that Xinjiang was calm, and state broadcaster CCTV ran interviews with pro-government Muslim clerics and residents of Urumqi, both Chinese and Uighur, who denounced violence and expressed confidence in the government's ability to maintain security.
China has also sought to enlist other countries in the region in the fight against violence in Xinjiang, and on Saturday the national legislature ratified a pair of agreements on anti-terrorism cooperation and joint drills under the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a Chinese- and Russian-dominated grouping of Central Asian states.