A group of ethnic Uyghur youths shot dead while storming a police station in China’s restive northwestern Xinjiang region last week had wanted to hoist a flag symbolizing regional independence in a possible suicide mission at the facility, according to police.
The attack by the nine youths, in their late teens and early twenties, on the Siriqbuya (in Chinese, Selibuya) police station in Kashgar prefecture’s Maralbeshi (Bachu) county was believed prompted by the arrest of two men linked to the assailants, police said
The nine youths, who were armed with knives and sickles, had killed three policemen in the Nov. 16 raid, which the authorities have called a “terrorist” attack.
Deputy Siriqbuya police station chief Mahmut Dawut told RFA’s Uyghur Service that the youths had carried the blue and white flag that represented two short-lived independent republics set up within China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region some seven to eight decades ago.
He said they were trying to take control of the station and fly the East Turkestan flag above it in emulation of a deadly attack in southern Xinjiang’s Hotan city in July 2011, when a group of young Uyghurs took hostages at a police station and took down the Chinese flag there.
The flag of the republics of East Turkestan, set up in 1933 and 1944 within what is now known as Xinjiang, continues to be a symbol of independence by many Uyghurs.
Ehmetjan Obul, a police officer who was on duty at the Siriqbuya station on the day of the attack, said the East Turkestan flag had been found lying among the bodies of four of the attackers killed in front of the door of the police station’s main office.
“Among those who were killed next to our door, there was a blue flag with a crescent and star,” he said.
Qeyim Nijat, another police officer at the Siriqbuya station, also confirmed that the attackers had been carrying the flag.
Siriqbuya station police chief Liu Cheng and his deputy Hesen Ablet, who spoke to RFA on the day of the attack, did not mention that the assailants had carried a flag, saying only that the young men had stormed the guard post of the station in the afternoon and were shot dead while attempting to advance to the main office.
RFA was unable to immediately contact Liu and Ablet again to verify the latest reports of the attack, the second in Siriqbuya in seven months.
Two auxiliary policemen were bludgeoned to death on the spot and another policeman died on the way to the hospital in the latest attack, which ended when a crack security police team arrived and shot all nine dead.
Other police sources told RFA the attack could have been prompted by the arrest of two men in Alaghir village a few miles outside Siriqbuya earlier that afternoon.
Police did not say how the two, who had been held in a county detention center at the time of the attack, were linked to the nine, but said that they were their “accomplices.”
Dawut said the attack could have been a bid by the group to rescue the duo who they feared could reveal incriminating information about them to the police.
“They attacked our police station to rescue their two collaborators, who were captured just one hour before by our co-workers and transferred to a detention center in the county,” he said.
It could also have been a “suicide mission” carried out once they knew they might face harsh sentences based on information revealed by the two, he said.
“They clearly knew they wouldn’t be able to rescue the two, but their extremist ideology gave them the motivation to try,” he said.
"Maybe they assumed that they could face arrest and harsh punishment under the law after their partners’ confession, and that is why they chose to die by attacking the police station.”
Police said that they had identified five of the attackers.
Chinese authorities often accuse Uyghurs of terrorist activities but experts familiar with the region have said Beijing has been exaggerating a terrorism threat to take the heat off domestic policies that cause unrest.
Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness in Xinjiang amid an influx of majority Han Chinese in the resource-rich region.
The attack on the police station came amid heightened tensions in Xinjiang following a Uyghur-driven car raid on Beijing's Tiananmen Square last month.
The government has blamed the Tiananmen attack on "terrorists" from Xinjiang but a former local official said the Uyghur who plowed his car into a crowded part of the highly sensitive site might have been angered by a police raid on a mosque in his hometown.
Xinjiang has seen a string of violent incidents in recent years as Beijing tightened security measures and extended house-to-house raids targeting Uyghur families.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma and Shohret Hoshur. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.