Chinese commandos in campaign against Xinjiang's Islamist 'rebels'

Security forces will comb through cities 24 hours a day to conduct identity checks and searches

China has sent security commandos to Xinjiang as part of a two-month campaign against what Beijing sees as violent Islamist separatists, following fresh outbreaks of deadly ethnic violence in the troubled western region.

Last month, tensions between Muslim Uighurs and ethnic Han Chinese boiled over again. Two knife attacks and clashes between Uighurs and police left more than 30 people dead in the resource-rich and strategically vital province, which borders Pakistan, Afghanistan and a number of Central Asian states.

Beijing fears a repeat of the deadly riots of July 2009, when local Uighurs turned on Han Chinese in the regional capital Urumqi, an incident that led to deadly reprisals by Han Chinese on Uighurs a few days later. The riots killed nearly 200 people, most of them ethnic Han Chinese. The government has since kept a tight grip on the province, with human-rights groups alleging that Beijing exaggerates the threat from militants to justify harsh controls.

In a statement yesterday, the Public Security Bureau of Xinjiang warned that its "strike hard" campaign would focus on "detecting and eliminating unsafe elements" and also "crack down illegal religious activities". Any suspicious activity would be investigated and the trial process would be sped up to deal "even more harshly" with defendants. "The frequency with which terrorist activities are carried out in the region is rising and it must be curbed," the statement said.

The largest province in China, Xinjiang has been a difficult territory to rule ever since the days of the "Great Game", when Britain and Russia battled it out for influence in the strategic region. The Han Chinese now see Xinjiang as an inalienable part of the territory of China. But Xinjiang's eight million Uighurs – a Turkic-Muslim ethnic group that shares close linguistic and cultural links to Central Asia – see Xinjiang as their homeland and resent the millions of Han Chinese who have poured into the region in recent decades, a migration they describe as cultural imperialism driven by Beijing. A simmering separatist campaign in the region has occasionally boiled over into violence in the past 20 years.

The "strike hard" campaign began on 11 August and will last until 15 October, after the National Day holiday, as well as the annual China-Eurasia Expo, which is being held in Urumqi in the first week in September, the government said on its website. Security officers will comb Xinjiang's cities 24 hours a day, especially public areas such as stations, markets and business districts, carrying out identity checks and searches.

Earlier this month, Beijing deployed its élite Snow Leopard Commandos to Xinjiang. This fearsome special force, which is part of the People's Armed Police, looked after the anti-terrorist part of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and is specially trained in counter-terrorism.