URUMQI, China – URUMQI, China (AP) — A bomb attack in China's restive Xinjiang region killed seven people and wounded 14 on Thursday, and an exile group claimed victims included members of the local police force and its auxiliary unit.
The attack was the deadliest violence reported in Xinjiang since bloody rioting in the regional capital of Urumqi last year that left 200 people dead.
The vast region bordering Central Asia has long been beset by ethnic conflict and separatist violence, leading to a massive and ongoing crackdown by security forces.
Thursday's blast went off after a man of the region's native Uighur ethnic group drove a three-wheeled vehicle laden with explosives into a crowd of people in a suburb in Aksu city in southwestern Xinjiang, said Hou Hanmin, a spokeswoman for the regional government.
"Police say it was an intentional act because the suspect was carrying explosive devices," Hou told a hastily arranged news conference in the regional capital of Urumqi, about 400 miles (650 kilometers) from Aksu.
She said the suspect, who was injured, was captured immediately.
Xinhua News Agency reported late Thursday that a woman also played a role in the attack and died in the blast. The report said the man and woman threw explosives from a three-wheeled motor vehicle.
Some of the wounded were in serious condition. "The casualties are innocent civilians of different ethnic minority backgrounds," she said.
Germany-based Uighur activist Dilxat Raxit said police were the apparent target, with eyewitnesses from Aksu telling him the victims included one policeman and 14 members of a uniformed police auxiliary force charged with monitoring the Uighur population. He declined to give the source of the information other than to say it was highly reliable.
Raxit said he had no information about the alleged attacker but said an oppressive security clampdown in the area may actually be encouraging further violence.
"Since last year's riots, we have seen ... systematic oppression and provocation," said Raxit, whose World Uyghur Congress says it opposes violent tactics.
The July 2009 Urumqi riots saw long-simmering tensions between the Turkic Muslim Uighurs and China's majority Han flare into open violence, with the government saying 197 people were killed. Hundreds of people were arrested in the aftermath and about two dozen sentenced to death, while many other Uighurs remain unaccounted for and are believed to be in custody.
While the riots marked China's worst ethnic violence in decades, Xinjiang has seen a series of bombings and other violence, including attacks on security forces around the time of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. The government says it has broken up several cells intent on carrying out attacks, including a bomb-making operation near Aksu in 2009 and a gang last month that it said was linked to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a banned militant organization advocating independence for Xinjiang.
Anti-government sentiments among Uighurs are fed by the ruling Communist Party's heavy-handed controls over their language, culture and Islamic faith, along with resentment of Chinese migrants and a perception that they are being favored economically to the detriment of Xinjiang's native population.
The government claims attacks are often planned by exile Uighurs overseas, including across the border in Central Asia or Pakistan.
Officially, however, the target of Thursday's attack remained unclear and it wasn't known whether it was motivated by separatist or extremist views. Homemade bombs are used throughout China to seek revenge over personal or property disputes, and the country this year has seen a series of gory rampage attacks by people using knives, guns and construction equipment.
In contrast, past separatist attacks in Xinjiang have almost always been aimed clearly at government targets or other symbols of Han Chinese influence.
Xinjiang Governor Nur Bekri, speaking at a news conference Thursday before the explosion was reported, said the government was battling separatist forces in Xinjiang.
"I believe we face a long and fierce and very complicated struggle," he said. "Separatism in Xinjiang has a very long history, it was there in the past, it is still here now and it will continue in the future."