By Michael Martina and Ben Blanchard
Three suspected Islamist militants armed with knives and axes killed the imam of China’s biggest mosque in the western region of Xinjiang on Wednesday, the authorities said, days after a knife-wielding gang attacked state buildings in the same region.
All three attackers, who were named by the government, had ethnic Uighur names and the imam, Juma Tayir, was a well-known pro-government Uighur who led prayers at the Id Kah Mosque in the old Silk Road city of Kashgar.
Xinjiang, home to the Muslim Uighur people, who speak a Turkic language, has for years been beset by violence, which the government blames on Islamist militants or separatists who it says want to establish an independent state called East Turkestan.
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.
The men attacked Tayir after morning prayers, the Xinjiang government said on its official news website on Thursday. Two of the attackers were later shot dead by police while the third was arrested, it said.
The three “were influenced by religious extremist thinking and plotted to raise their profile by ‘doing something big'”, the government said.
Xinjiang has seen a surge in violence over the last year, with hundreds killed, including some police, according to state media.
Tensions among the Uighur are running high after officials in Xinjiang told Muslims to ignore religious customs during the holy month of Ramadan, which rights groups say an attempt to repress the Uighur minority.
Tayir was a controversial figure among Uighurs. In 2009, he backed the government after it quashed deadly riots in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi in which nearly 200 people were killed.
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the exiled World Uyghur Congress, said Tayir was known locally for cooperating with the government and helping them to monitor religious activities of the Uighurs.
“Local Uighurs suspected that he had a special relationship with China’s Ministry of Public Security,” he said in emailed comments to Reuters.
The killing in Kashgar comes after a series of attacks in Xinjiang over the past year. State media reported on Wednesday that a gang armed with knives had attacked a police station and government offices on Monday in the town of Elixku, in Shache county.
The government said dozens of knife-wielding attackers were shot dead in Shache but has yet to give a full account of what happened in the county, which lies 200 km from Kashgar. Police appeared to be on high alert on Wednesday, pouring into Kashgar and closing off roads.
Adding to the tensions, China indicted prominent Uighur professor Ilham Tohti, who has championed the rights of his community, on separatism charges.
His case has drawn attention from the United States and European Union and is seen by rights groups as part of a broader crackdown on dissent in Xinjiang.
Xinjiang has rich coal, oil and gas reserves and is strategically located on the borders of Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.