'Violent terrorism' in China's Xinjiang has dropped: party official

BEIJING (Reuters) - “Violent terrorism” in China’s troubled western region of Xinjiang has fallen markedly over the last year, its Communist Party boss said on Tuesday, in the government’s latest effort to show progress in its battle for stability there.

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Hundreds of people have been killed over the past few years in resource-rich Xinjiang, strategically located on the borders of central Asia, in violence between the Muslim Uighur people, who call the region home, and ethnic majority Han Chinese.

Officials have blamed the unrest on Islamist militants, though rights groups and exiles say anger at Chinese controls on the religion and culture of the Uighurs is more to blame for the unrest. China denies any repression in Xinjiang.

Religious management and ethnic unity had undergone “heartening changes” and the people and officials were in “good spirits”, Xinjiang party secretary Zhang Chunxian said at a briefing on the sidelines of China’s annual parliament meeting.

“Violent terrorist incidents have dropped significantly,” Zhang said, adding that the government’s preventative abilities had increased.

Zhang, however, said conditions for combating terrorism and maintaining stability in the region remained complex.

“Wherever the terrorist mentality and extremist behavior exists, we will maintain (our policy) of striking hard,” he said.

China said in November that security forces had killed 28 members of a group that carried out a deadly attack at a coal mine in Xinjiang in September, though it is unclear why the government had not disclosed the attack earlier.

Some previous attacks have also not been reported until days or even weeks after they happened, and rights groups say China has never presented convincing evidence of the existence of a cohesive militant group fighting the government.

Senior Chinese officials have increasingly described the security challenges in Xinjiang as an important front in the global fight against terrorism. Zhang has previously said some people from the region have gone to fight with Islamic State.

Reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Nick Macfie