Suspected kidnappers killed in China's restive west

BEIJING Thu Dec 29, 2011 2:35am EST

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BEIJING (Reuters) - Police in China's restive far-western Xinjiang region killed seven "kidnappers in a hostage rescue," official media reported on Thursday, calling the suspects members of a "terror gang" who may have been influenced by Muslim hardliners.

The kidnappers took two people hostage late on Wednesday in Pishan County in the far southern part of Xinjiang, close to the borders of India and Pakistan, said the region's official news website (www.tianshannet.com).

When police responded "the assailants resisted arrest and launched assaults, killing one police officer and injuring another," said the report.

Seven of the suspects were shot dead and four were wounded and caught, said the report. The two hostages were freed.

The official Xinhua news agency said "there was speculation that the kidnapping was linked to a surge in religious extremism."

Pishan is a heavily Uighur area of Xinjiang. The Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking Muslim people who call Xinjiang home.

While they have traditionally practiced a very moderate form of Islam, many chafe at government controls on their culture and religion, and the region has been beset by ethnic strife and sometimes violent unrest.

Xinhua said police in Pishan reported another case earlier this month "in which the extremists kidnapped and brutally murdered a Uighur man for drinking alcohol."

"Store-owners and vendors in some rural areas of Pishan said they are afraid to sell alcoholic drinks or cigarettes over fears of retaliation," the report added.

One resident told Xinhua the Uighur lifestyle "had been seriously affected" by the rise of an "extremist atmosphere in recent years."

China has accused militant Uighurs of working with supporters in Pakistan to plan attacks in Xinjiang.

However, exile groups and human rights activists say China overstates the nature of the threat posed by militants in Xinjiang to justify its harsh policies.

Calls to the Xinjiang government by Reuters were not answered.

In July 2009, Uighurs rioted against Han Chinese residents in Urumqi, the regional capital of Xinjiang, killing at least 197 people, mostly Han, according to official estimates.

Xinjiang sits astride south and central Asia. China sees it as a bulwark in this volatile part of the world, making it all the more jumpy about unrest.

In September, courts in Xinjiang sentenced four people to death for violence in two cities over the summer in which 32 people were killed.

The government blamed the incidents in Kashgar and Hotan -- both in the majority Uighur southern part of Xinjiang -- on religious hardliners and separatists who want to establish an independent state called East Turkestan for their people.

(Reporting by Chris Buckley and Ben Blanchard; Editing by Paul Tait)

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