BEIJING (Reuters) - Western tourists saw a body lying in a pool of blood in a major city in China's violence-prone Xinjiang province on Wednesday, as security forces flooded in after the government said dozens of knife-wielding attackers were shot dead elsewhere in the region earlier in the week.
There were indications that unrest had spread by Wednesday to Kashgar, a popular tourist site especially during the summer.
A French traveller said he saw a body lying in a pool of blood outside the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar's old town on Wednesday morning, and armed police pouring into the city by afternoon. "We heard shouting and my friend saw two people running away with knives. Police came quickly and told people not to take pictures. They checked mobile phones," he told Reuters by telephone. He added that it was the reasons for the violence were unclear and he could not tell if those involved were Uighur or members of China's majority Han ethnicity.
When leaving Kashgar on Wednesday, the traveller said a long convoy of armed police vehicles, including at least five armoured personnel carriers, drove into the city. "All cars coming into Kashgar were being turned around," he said. "These were urban tanks with machine guns, not water cannon," another European citizen accompanying him said.
State media said a gang armed with knives first attacked a police station and government offices on Monday in the town of Elixku, in Shache county, about 200km from the old Silk Road city of Kashgar in China's far west.
Some moved on to the nearby town of Huangdi, attacking civilians and smashing and setting fire to six vehicles, in what the official Xinhua news agency called an "organised and premeditated terrorist attack". "Police officers at the scene shot dead dozens of members of the mob," the brief report said.
Xinjiang, home to many Turkic-language speaking Uighurs, has been beset by violence for years, which the government blames on
Islamist militants or separatists who it says are bent on establishing an independent state called East Turkestan.
State media only reported the attacks in Shache, also known by its Uighur name of Yarkant, late on Tuesday.
It is not clear why there was a delay, though China's ruling Communist Party, which values stability above all else, has a habit of suppressing or delaying bad news.
Reuters could not reach the Xinjiang government for comment despite repeated attempts.
The government has yet to give a full account of what happened, or a death toll. "Uighurs in Shache said excessive use of armed suppression led to conflict in which nearly 100 people were killed or injured," Mr Dilxat Raxit, a World Uyghur Congress spokesman, said in an e-mail, adding that he could not confirm the figure. "The Chinese government must transparently let the world know the facts of this situation," he added.
The attack took place at the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which officials had tried to get Muslims in Xinjiang to ignore, in an indication of what rights groups say is discrimination targeting the Uighurs.
Shache is located in Xinjiang's heavily Uighur south-western part, close to the borders of Tajikistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Exiled Uighur groups and human rights activists say the government's repressive policies in Xinjiang, including controls on Islam, have provoked unrest, a claim Beijing denies.
China exercises tight control over Xinjiang, making visits by foreign reporters there to independently assess the situation extremely difficult.
Xinjiang, resource-rich and strategically located on the borders of central Asia, is crucial to meeting China's growing energy needs.
Exiles, rights groups and many foreign experts say that most of the proceeds have gone to the Han Chinese, stoking resentment among Uighurs.
More than 200 people have died in unrest in Xinjiang in the past year or so, the government says, prompting a tough crackdown by Beijing.
Violence blamed by China on Uighur extremists has begun to spread outside of Xinjiang. In March, 29 people were stabbed to death at a train station in the southwestern city of Kunming.