BEIJING – A tense minority region in China's far west erupted in violence Friday for the second time in three days, barely hours after the government called the earlier unrest a "terrorist attack" and raised the death toll to 35.
State media gave few details in a brief dispatch about Friday's unrest, saying it was "a violent attack" that took place on a pedestrian street in Hotan, a city in Xinjiang, a region that has seen China's minority Uighurs clash with the ethnic Han majority. No details on casualties were released.
But a woman reached by phone in Hotan said that young men rioted on a pedestrian street near Tuanjie Square, or Unity Square, at around 3 p.m., setting fires.
The woman, who said she lived a bus stop away from the street where the unrest took place, refused to give her name out of fear of government reprisal. She said people were not being allowed out of their homes or to gather on the streets.
Armed police and riot police were guarding intersections and have ordered residents to stay at home and shopkeepers to close early, and the area around the square has been sealed, said a man surnamed Jia, who works in real estate.
"At the time, I saw a lot of police cars and military vehicles on the roads headed in that direction, and I heard that there was trouble over there," Jia said. "Then they told us to close our office and go home because it's too dangerous."
Jia said that mobile phone services within Hotan were disrupted in the afternoon for a few hours. Calls to several government agencies could not get through.
The latest unrest to rock Xinjiang came as the government said that Wednesday's attacks on police and other government buildings in Turpan prefecture's Lukqun township had killed 35 people, up from an earlier toll of 27.
State-run media had said that knife-wielding assailants launched early-morning attacks Wednesday targeting police stations, a government building and a construction site — all symbols of Han authority and influx in the region.
An exiled Uighur activist disputed that account, saying the violence started when police raided homes overnight. It was impossible to independently confirm the conflicting accounts.
The updated death toll included some of the severely injured dying in the hospital. It also included 11 assailants shot dead in Lukqun, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported. Two police officers were among the 24 people they killed, Xinhua said.
"This is a terrorist attack, there's no question about that," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Friday at a regular news briefing. "As to who masterminded it, local people are still investigating."
State news reports did not identify the ethnicity of the attackers, nor explain what may have caused the conflict in the Turkic-speaking region, where Uighurs complain of suppression and discrimination by Han people. The report also said police captured four injured assailants.
Wednesday's violence — also described as a terrorist act by state media — was one of the bloodiest incidents since unrest in the region's capital city, Urumqi, killed nearly 200 people in 2009.
Photos released in state media show scorched police cars and government buildings and victims lying on the ground, presumably dead.
The Global Times newspaper said police set up many checkpoints along the 30-kilometer (19-mile) road to Lukqun and dissuaded reporters from traveling there due to safety concerns. It said heavy security has been necessary because some suspects remained on the run.
An official who gave only his family name of Bao and works at the news office for the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau said Friday that he had no more information than in state media. Calls to the region's party propaganda office and the regional government's news office were not answered.
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress, said residents in Lukqun were prevented from entering mosques for Friday prayers. He questioned Beijing's account of the event, saying local residents had told him police had forcefully raided homes at night, triggering the deadly conflicts.
Xinjiang (shihn-jeeahng) is home to a large population of minority Muslim Uighurs (WEE'-gurs) in a region that borders Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan and has been the scene of numerous violent acts in recent years, including the riots in the capital four years ago.
Critics have attributed the violence, including Wednesday's deadly clashes, to Beijing's oppressive and discriminatory ethnicity policies. Many Uighurs complain that authorities impose tight restrictions on their religious and cultural life.
The Chinese government says that it has invested billions of dollars in modernizing the oil- and gas-rich region and that it treats all ethnic groups equally.