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BEIJING (Reuters) - China said on Monday that Islamic militants had mounted an attack that left 11 people dead in the restive western region of Xinjiang, which announced a crackdown on "illegal" religious activities at the start of the Muslim fasting month.
The attack in Kashgar city on Sunday afternoon was the latest violence to rattle the region where Muslim Uighurs have long resented the presence of Han Chinese and religious and political controls imposed by Beijing.
It came less than 24 hours after two small blasts hit the city, which is dominated by Uighurs.
"The malign intention behind this violent terror was to sabotage inter-ethnic unity and harm social stability, provoking ethnic hatred and creating ethnic conflict," the Kashgar government said on its website (www.xjks.gov.cn).
Captured suspects confessed that their ringleaders had earlier fled to Pakistan and joined the separatist "East Turkestan Islamic Movement," and received training in making firearms and explosives before infiltrating back into China, the Kashgar government said.
"The members of this group all adhere to extremist religious ideas and adamantly support Jihad," said the statement, referring to the Arabic term for struggle used by advocates of militant Islam to describe their cause.
Police shot dead five people and arrested four others after they stormed a restaurant, set in on fire after killing the owner and a waiter, and then ran onto the street and hacked to death four people, Xinhua news agency reported.
The Chinese-language Global Times newspaper said all the suspected attackers were Uighur.
For the ruling Communist Party, the bloodshed presents a tricky test of its control in Xinjiang, where Uighur and Han Chinese residents view each other with suspicion. (For more on the issues see.)
Beijing has been wary of contagion from uprisings across the Arab world inspiring challenges to Party power in China.
"I think it's a testament to how tense the region remains, and the fact that you have increased polarization between ethnic groups," said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher on China for Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group.
"There's a lot of pent-up anger and resentment of Chinese policies in Kashgar," added Bequelin, noting a controversial program to raze homes in traditional Uighur neighborhoods and relocate them to housing under firmer official control.
The top Communist Party official in Xinjiang, Zhang Chunxian, announced a crackdown on religious extremism and vowed harsh punishment for those found guilty of attacks, according to the region's official news website (www.tianshannet.com).
"(We will) resolutely attack religious extremist forces and effectively curb illegal religious activities," Zhang said.
Kashgar city lies in Xinjiang's south and has a population of some 600,000 people, about four fifths of them Uighur, according to the government. The city is divided between Uighur and Han Chinese areas, and many residents depend on tourism for their livelihoods.
China sees Xinjiang as strategically vital, and Beijing has shown no sign of loosening its grip on the territory, which accounts for a sixth of the country's land mass and holds deposits of oil and gas.
In July 2009, the regional capital, Urumqi, was rocked by violence between majority Han Chinese and minority Uighurs that killed nearly 200 people, many of them Han Chinese.
Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking people who have usually not embraced stricter forms of Islam, but in recent years religious traditionalism has made inroads.
Critics of Chinese policy in Xinjiang and advocates of Uighur self-rule say that Beijing has exaggerated the influence of terror groups, and its tough policies have deepened Uighur anger by smothering avenues for peaceful protest.
Bequelin, the human rights researcher, said he was skeptical about Chinese suggestions that the "East Turkestan Islamic Movement" (ETIM) was behind the attack.
"It's now an umbrella term used by China for any kind of Uighur separatist or anti-state activity," Bequelin said of ETIM, which was designated as a terrorist organization by the United States in 2002.
Earlier on Sunday, Chinese media reported that two men wielding knives attacked a truck driver and then a crowd of people following two explosions in Kashgar on Saturday night, leaving eight people dead including one of the attackers.
Eighteen people including 14 "rioters" were killed in an attack on a police station in Xinjiang on July 18, according to the government.
In July 2009, Xinjiang was hit by a public backlash from Han Chinese residents of the regional capital Urumqi, who said officials acted too slowly to quell bloody rioting by Uighurs after police broke up a protest by Uighur students.
The latest attack also brought calls on the Chinese Internet for a harsh response.
"Our hope rests in policy-makers completely cutting through entangling shackles, our hope rests with the military," said one comment about the assault on Sina's popular Weibo microblogging site (weibo.com).
Additional reporting by Sally Huang; Editing by Ken Wills and Jonathan Thatcher