BEIJING // An advocacy group claimed yesterday that at least 20 members of the largely Muslim Uighur ethnic group were killed by police on Monday in China's Xinjiang region while holding a peaceful demonstration.
Chinese authorities and state media, however, say the clash, possibly the most serious in Xinjiang since rioting in July 2009 left scores dead, was a terrorist attack on a police station that left a policeman, a security guard and two hostages dead.
Xinjiang is plagued with tensions as Uighurs, who consider Xinjiang their homeland but make up less than half the population, are unhappy about the influx of Han Chinese and what has been described as the erosion of traditional culture.
Dolkun Isa, the secretary general of the World Uyghur Congress, said that while "it was very difficult" to determine the death toll from Monday's violence in the city of Hotan, "we believe at least 20 people were killed" by police.
"We believe it's [actually] much more than this number," he said by telephone from the group's headquarters in Germany.
"China is labelling all peaceful activities as terrorist activities. It was a peaceful demonstration. They just gathered and the Chinese police just opened fire."
Mr Isa said more than 100 protesters gathered near Hotan's main bazaar. He said they were the friends and relatives of "a lot of innocent people" rounded up by authorities during a recent crackdown that coincided with the second anniversary of the 2009 riots.
As well as those killed, at least 12 were said to be seriously injured and more than 70 arrested.
The state-run Global Times newspaper reported "police gunned down an unidentified number of rioters" and in comments to the newspaper, a local government spokeswoman, Hou Hanmin, claimed there was "an organised terrorist attack" by people carrying explosives and grenades.
She said they broke into government offices near the police station, injuring two, before attacking the police station itself, "where they showed a flag with separatist messages". They are then alleged to have set the station ablaze before killing hostages during a stand-off with police.
Since the riots in Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital, in 2009 there has been what rights groups describe as a severe security crackdown, with hundreds arrested.
More generally, Amnesty International says the identity of Uighurs is being "systematically eroded" through limits on the use of the Uighur language, lack of freedom of worship, employment discrimination and a Han influx.
The Chinese authorities, which call the area the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, say stability is threatened by separatists within China and overseas.
Dr Joseph Cheng, a professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong, said Beijing's policies towards Xinjiang, and Tibet, had "largely failed".
"The Chinese authorities pump more money into their autonomous regions and try to promote economic growth and deliver more social services and so on, but they have not responded to ethnic minorities' demands in terms of religious freedom and in terms of language and education and political freedom and human rights in general", he said.
Zang Xiaowei, a professor of Chinese studies and head of the School of East Asian Studies at the University of Sheffield in the UK, said the Chinese government has "tried its best to solve the tensions". However, he said, "it is hard to judge, since the policies are new."
"Many China experts in the West think most Uighurs in the province feel their culture and religion is under threat. Yet there is no solid evidence to support this claim," he said.