A group of seven alleged kidnappers killed by Chinese police in the troubled Xinjiang region last week were ethnic Uighurs trying to flee the province, a new report claims. It also says that women and children were caught in the crossfire.
Pishan County police shot and killed seven "terrorists" who had taken two hostages, and the official Xinhua news agency speculated the kidnapping "was linked to a surge in religious extremism".
However, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported yesterday that at least two of seven ethnic Uighurs killed in the confrontation were women, and that children as young as seven years old were among those detained following the violence.
Mukula village chief Minever Ehmet told Radio Free Asia that the bodies of the two women, Burabiye Anduqadir and Buzohre Seydehmet, were being held by the local Public Security Bureau.
"The four captives are children aged seven to 17 years of age. One child is an elementary school student in second grade. They are being interrogated by the county," Mr Ehmet told the station.
The village is on the southern edge of the broad Taklamakan desert, near the border with India and Pakistan. The name Taklamakan translates as "the desert you enter but never leave." The largest province in China, Xinjiang is rich in oil and gas.
Xinjiang's eight million Turkic-speaking Uighurs are a Turkic Muslim ethnic group that shares close linguistic and cultural links to central Asia, and is quite distinct from China's majority Han. Many feel overwhelmed by the influence of Han Chinese and vote with their feet by leaving the country.
Local leader Memet Eziz Hapiz was quoted as saying many of those killed and detained were from his hamlet, which is within the Mukula village jurisdiction. The group had been trying to flee abroad where they could practice their religion unhindered when police confronted them, he said.
RFA quoted a police officer from the Pishan county Public Security Bureau confirming that the group had been trying to leave China. The unnamed spokesman said police had tried to block them peacefully before one of the Uighurs attacked and killed police officer Adil Abduweli.
"After that, our armed forces took over and conducted the operation. One traitor escaped and we are in the midst of an operation to capture him," the officer said.
The Xinhua news agency said last week militants were trying to introduce an extreme form of Islam. Human rights groups have long said they believe Beijing exaggerates the threat from militants to justify harsh controls.
A simmering separatist campaign in the region has occasionally boiled over into violence. In July 2009 local Uighurs turned on Han Chinese in Urumqi - an incident that led to deadly reprisals by Han on Uighurs a few days later. The riots killed nearly 200 people, most of them ethnic Han Chinese.