BEIJING - The death toll in Wednesday’s clashes in the western Xinjiang region has risen from 27 to at least 35, and China’s state-run media are now referring to the incident as a “terrorist attack.”
Initial reports by the official New China News Agency said knife-wielding rioters attacked a police station, a government building and a construction site.
It was the deadliest outbreak of violence in years in the region, where tension has simmered between Uighurs, a Muslim minority group, and ethnic Han Chinese.
The first reports on the violence said rioters killed 17 people and police shot 10 dead. But on Thursday, the news agency said rioters had slain 24 people, including two police officers, and police shot 11 to death. Another 21 people were injured, the agency said Thursday.
However, Radio Free Asia’s Uighur language service, citing local officials, residents and an imam who helped with burial rites, said Friday the death toll was at least 46 -- including 35 security personnel.
The new accounts also for the first time mentioned the ethnicities of those involved, with Xinhua saying 16 of the dead were Uighurs. RFA said of the security personnel that were slain, about half were Uighurs.
Exactly what sparked the incident remained unclear. Xinjiang next week will mark the four-year anniversary of ethnic clashes that killed nearly 200 people in 2009.
A report Friday in the Global Times, a newspaper closely affiliated with the Communist Party, said more than 10 suspects had been arrested, most of whom were aged 18 or 19.
The paper cited an unnamed Xinjiang official as saying that the attackers were mostly Uighurs and mainly targeted Uighur police officers. The Han victims were all migrant workers at a construction site in the town of Lukqun, the paper said.
The World Uyghur Congress, a Germany-based advocacy group, has expressed skepticism about the official accounts of the incident but said it had had difficulty reaching locals because communication links in the area had been shut down.
The Global Times said its reporter was unable to enter Lukqun because the city had been sealed off.
The official also told the paper that authorities believed the attackers had been planning to launch an assault at a commodity fair in the city of Kashi on Friday.
U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said Wednesday that the Obama administration was "closely following" reports of the Xinjiang violence and urged “Chinese authorities to conduct a thorough, transparent investigation of this incident to provide those detained the due process protections to which they are entitled under China's constitution, laws and international human rights commitments."
He also said Washington remained "deeply concerned" by what he called "ongoing reports of discrimination and restrictions" against Chinese Uighurs and Muslims.
In a commentary Friday in the state-run China Daily, Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences researcher Shi Lan hit back at the U.S. criticism.
"Some of the Xinjiang terrorist groups get support from the West, which loves to call their usurpations acts of 'independence and religious freedom,'" she said. "Western powers still use double standards when it comes to terrorist attacks on China."