BEIJING —Attackers armed with Molotov cocktails and explosives stormed a police station in China’s restive Muslim province of Xinjiang on Monday, killing and wounding several police officers, taking hostages and setting the building on fire, according to a local official and a report from the state-run news agency Xinhua.
Several attackers and some hostages were killed when police converged on the besieged police station, in the crowded “grand bazaar” area in the city of Hotan, and several bystanders in a nearby commercial building were also injured, according to the spokeswoman, Hou Hanmin of the Xinjiang information department.
“A member of the armed police, a security personnel and two hostages were killed during the ordeal,” according to the Xinhua report, citing unnamed sources with China’s Public Security Ministry. The report said, “The police quickly converged on the scene and shot a number of rioters while freeing six hostages.”
The precise number of attackers and the number of casualties were not immediately clear
“The thugs began to throw the Molotov cocktails as they rushed into the first floor of the police station, and then they raided the second floor,” said Hou. “The hostages as far as I know are all ordinary people who were doing business in the police station.”
“It’s an organized terrorist attack,” Hou said. She said some of the attackers were still alive, and their identities were “unclear.”
Hou said the authorities would provide more information after the surviving attackers are questioned and the investigation is complete.
Witnesses interviewed by telephone said at nighttime, all the roads leading to Hotan’s grand bazaar remained closed by security forces, and the streets were mostly empty.
This evening, the Chinese government’s censors began blocking the words “Xinjiang,” “Hotan” and “riot” from the search engines of the most popular microblogging sites.
The attack marks one of the most serious eruptions of violence since July 2009 when rioting between Muslim Uighurs and ethnic Han Chinese left nearly 200 people dead and many shops and other businesses burned. Two dozen people were executed for the rioting, and hundreds remain missing, presumably detained, according to human rights groups.
Violent attacks like the one on the police station are rare in China, but not unheard of. Previous incidents in Xinjiang have mostly involved roadside bombs or assailants detonating vehicle-born devices near police patrols. In August last year, a bomb carried aboard a three-wheeled vehicle exploded in a crowd in Aksu city in Xinjiang, killing seven people and wounding at least a dozen others.
The 2009 riots prompted a massive security crackdown in the nominally autonomous province, particularly in July, the anniversary of the unrest. Turkic-speaking Uighurs are upset at Chinese migration into what they consider their traditional Muslim homeland, but where Muslims are now outnumbered by Han Chinese.
The Beijing authorities have blamed the previous unrest on “terrorists” seeking the independence of the Xinjiang region from China. They have specifically pointed to the outlawed East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which officials have called the principle terrorist threat facing China.
The ETIM has been blamed for several attacks in 2008, including one in Kashgar against border policemen that killed 17 people at the start of the Beijing Summer Olympics.
Xinjiang’s new governor, Zhang Chunxian, appointed in April of last year, took a different tack from his hardline predecessor, emphasizing the need to improve the economy of the province and provide jobs for the Uighur population.
To interact more with the public, Zhang became the highest level Chinese official to set up his own Twitter-like microblogging account, and earlier this month he appeared in photographs in state-run newspapers, tie-less and in shirtsleeves, sauntering through a popular outdoor food market in the provincial capital, Urumqi, eating kebabs with with local residents.
Hou, the spokesman, said the government had taken steps recently that have improved the economic situation in Hotan, and that the attackers were trying to sow fear. “There’s no problem in the relationship between Uighurs and Han Chinese,” she said. “This is anti-government and anti-regime behavior.”
One academic expert, Li Wei, director of the anti-terrorism research center at a Beijing think tank, said the government had made improvements in Xinjiang and the number of terrorist attacks should decrease. But he said groups, mostly with outside links, still wanted to affect stability in Xinjiang, and chose to attack now because of the symbolism of July and the 2009 riots.
Washington Post researchers Zhang Jie and Liu Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.