KUQA, China – Assailants using homemade bombs attacked a shopping center and hotel and battled with police Sunday in a western Chinese city far from the Beijing Olympics where local Muslims have waged a sputtering rebellion against Chinese rule. Ten attackers and one security guard died, police said.
The pre-dawn violence in the restive Muslim region of Xinjiang came despite tightened security for the games and followed threats by an Al Qaeda-linked militant Islamic group to disrupt the sporting event.
Sunday's attack and an assault on border police Aug. 4 that left 16 officers dead marked a dramatic increase in violence in the region.
Police said "violent terrorists" attacked a shopping center, hotel and government buildings in the city of Kuqa in west central Xinjiang.
Without providing details, the police statement said officers killed eight attackers and another two blew themselves up, while two were arrested. Three attackers were at large, it said.
In a more detailed account, the state-run Xinhua News agency said the bombs were made from bent pipes, gas canisters and liquid gas tanks.
One of the largest attacks involved assailants who drove a three-wheeled vehicle with explosives into the compound of the public security bureau at about 2:30 a.m., Xinhua reported. An explosion followed that killed the security guard, injured two police and two civilians, and destroyed two police cars, it said.
Police opened fire on the attackers, killing one. Another blew himself up, injuring a third, and a fourth was captured in the assault, Xinhua said, citing an unidentified local government spokesman.
Six hours later, a battle broke out in a nearby market where police found five attackers hiding under a counter, Xinhua said. The men hurled bombs at police, who fatally shot two of them, while the remaining three killed themselves with their own bombs, the news agency said.
Xinhua said the captured suspect told police 15 people were involved in the attack. Police, who said three attackers were at large, also seized a taxi used by the bombers.
Police declined to confirm the Xinhua account or comment on the discrepancies between the report and the official news release.
Wang Wei, vice president of the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee, called the attacks the work of "East Turkestan terrorists" — the name some separatists use for Xinjiang — and said no government would tolerate such violence.
"The very purpose of these attacks is all about separating the region from China," Wang told reporters. He said the attackers "want to use the Olympic stage to enlarge the impact."
Authorities shut down Kuqa county, a region 1,740 miles west of Beijing where some 400,000 people live, for most of the day. Soldiers with machine guns patrolled the streets and people were told not to leave their homes. A Foreign Ministry official in Beijing, speaking on customary condition of anonymity, said the restrictions were akin to martial law.
Police picked up an Associated Press reporter and photographer while they were reporting Sunday near the scene and drove them to a hotel where they were kept for hours. On the way to the hotel, they saw one of the explosion sites: a storefront in a line of shops was burnt out, and a three-wheeled vehicle parked in front of the store was completely charred.
After several hours, people were allowed to go back into the streets, though most shops stayed closed. People gathered on the sidewalk outside the places that had been attacked, including a bank, which had its facade covered with a red, white and blue tarp.
A Western tourist in Kuqa, who did not want his name or nationality mentioned for fear of the response from Chinese authorities, said he heard the explosions while he was in bed reading.
"I heard some bombs and then I heard some machine guns," he said. "The bombs sounded like thunder far away."
"We came down to the lobby this morning and it was breakfast as usual," but no one was allowed to go outside, the tourist said.
Residents in the street discussed the attack among themselves, but were reticent to talk to a reporter.
"This doesn't usually happen. It's happening now because of the Olympics, but I don't know who is doing it," said one man, a construction worker, who wouldn't give his name for fear of official retaliation.
On Thursday, a video purportedly made by the Turkestan Islamic Party was released in which the militant group threatened to attack buses, trains and planes during the two-week Olympic competition.
The group wants independence for Xinjiang and is believed to be based in Pakistan, where security experts say core members received training from Al Qaeda.
Xinjiang is home to the Uighurs, an 8 million-strong Muslim minority with a long history of tense relations with the Chinese.