BEIJING (REUTERS) - At least 50 people died in an attack last month at a coal mine in China's violence-prone Xinjiang, United States-based Radio Free Asia reported on Thursday (Oct 1), as the country geared up to mark 60 years since the establishment of what it calls the Xinjiang Autonomous Region.
The government says it faces a serious threat from Islamist militants and separatists in energy-rich Xinjiang, which sits strategically on the borders of central Asia and where hundreds have died in violence in recent years.
But exiles and rights groups say China has never presented convincing evidence of the existence of a cohesive militant group fighting the government, and that much of the unrest can be traced back to frustration at controls over the culture and religion of the Uighur people who live in Xinjiang.
US-based Radio Free Asia said the number of people killed in the Sept 18 attack at the Sogan colliery in Aksu had reached 50, with most casualties members of the Han Chinese majority and police blaming knife-wielding separatists.
When police officers arrived on the scene, attackers "rammed their vehicles using trucks loaded down with coal", the report said, citing its own sources.
"Nearly all the workers who were not on shift at the time were killed or injured," police officer Ekber Hashim told the station. "Some workers were sleeping while others were preparing to work when the attackers raided the building after killing the security guards."
Reuters was unable to reach officials for comment. Such incidents are frequently reported in overseas media but not confirmed by the Chinese government until days later, if ever.
In June, Radio Free Asia said at least 18 people died when ethnic Uighurs attacked police with knives and bombs at a traffic checkpoint in the old Silk Road city of Kashgar.
The government has never confirmed that incident, though diplomats have told Reuters they believe a serious attack did take place.
Tensions between Muslim Uighurs that call the region home and the majority Han Chinese have resulted in bloodshed in recent years.
Exiled Uighur groups and human rights activists say repressive government policies in Xinjiang, including controls on Islam and Uighur culture, have provoked unrest, a claim that Beijing denies.
Yu Zhengsheng, who is in charge of religious groups and ethnic minorities and No.4 in the ruling Communist Party, is expected to appear at celebrations for Xinjiang's founding anniversary in regional capital Urumqi later on Thursday.