BEIJING Police in western China's restive Xinjiang on Monday "gunned down" several rioters who attacked a police station and killed at least four people, though an exile group said the incident started when police fired on peaceful protesters.
The violence was the worst Xinjiang has experienced in about a year. Last August, seven Chinese military police were killed when a member of the Uighur minority rammed them with an explosives-laden vehicle in the Xinjiang border region.
State television said the latest incident took place in the desert city of Hotan when a mob attacked a police station, taking hostages and setting it on fire.
Two hostages, a paramilitary policeman and a guard died in the violence, as well as several of the attackers, it reported. Six hostages were freed.
"Police gunned down several rioters who attacked a police station and killed four people in Hotan city," the official Xinhua news agency said.
"Rioters broke into the police station shortly after 12 p.m. (0400 GMT). They assaulted the police, took hostages and set fire to the station," it added, citing the Ministry of Public Security.
"The police quickly converged on the scene and shot a number of rioters while freeing six hostages."
The situation has now been bought "under control", the state television said, and a team from the state anti-terrorism office was on its way to the scene.
The Xinjiang government was not immediately available for comment.
Dilxat Raxit of the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress said residents in Hotan had told his group that police opened fire on a peaceful protest, leading to fighting between the two sides.
"The people cannot stand the government's repression any longer," he said by telephone. Reuters was not able to independently verify his account.
"VIOLENT SEPARATIST GROUPS"
Beijing often blames what it calls violent separatist groups in Xinjiang for attacks on police or other government targets, saying they work with al Qaeda or Central Asian militants to bring about an independent state called East Turkestan.
Many Uighurs -- a Muslim, Turkic-speaking people native to the region -- chafe under rule from Beijing and restrictions on their language, culture and religion.
They now make up less than half of Xinjiang's population after decades of immigration by the majority Han from other parts of China.
In July 2009, Xinjiang's capital Urumqi was rocked by violence between majority Han Chinese and minority Uighurs that killed nearly 200 people.
Since then, China has executed nine people it blamed for instigating the riots, detained and prosecuted hundreds of others and ramped up spending on security, according to state media and overseas rights groups.
Last month, Kazakhstan extradited a Uighur schoolteacher who had been granted U.N. refugee status to face charges of terrorism in China, brushing off concerns he could be tortured and that the charges against him were trumped up.
Xinjiang is strategically vital to China and Beijing has shown no sign of loosening its grip.
A vast swathe of territory, accounting for one-sixth of China's land mass, Xinjiang holds oil, gas and coal deposits and borders Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Central Asia.
(Editing by Yoko Nishikawa)