BEIJING (Reuters) - A participant in a September attack on a coal mine in China’s far western region of Xinjiang that killed 16 people said he had been brainwashed to believe he was going to heaven, a state-run paper reported on Monday.
Hundreds of people have been killed in the past few years in the region, which is home to the mainly Muslim Uighur people, in violence blamed by the government on Islamist militants seeking an independent state called East Turkestan.
China only admitted last month the mine attack had happened, when it said its security forces had killed 28 of the “terrorists” involved. Since then it has released further details in dribs and drabs.
In the latest report on the incident and government efforts to hunt down the perpetrators, the official Xinjiang Daily said one of the suspects could not stand life on the run, and gave himself up to his grandfather, a former Communist Party official.
“They said killing people means you can get into heaven as a martyr,” the man, identified as Tuerhong Aimaiti, told the newspaper in comments published on Monday. “I’ve been brainwashed and have become a criminal.”
Those on the run were tracked by air and land forces and reduced to eating uncooked corn and sleeping on rocks, he was cited as saying.
“I really regret it now. They were wrong. You won’t enter heaven by killing innocent people. We’ll only go to hell.”
It was not possible to independently verify his account or reach him or family members for comment. Reuters was also unable to reach officials in Aksu, the site of the attack, for comment.
The government has said the attackers operated under the direction of “foreign extremists”, but has given no details.
Thousands of farmers and herders helped comb the countryside for the fugitives, and even gathered in crops and animals to deny them food, the paper said.
“The herders fear neither hardship, nor fatigue, nor the cold,” one official in the region, Tuerxun, told the newspaper. “They burned the midnight oil and braved the elements to besiege and intercept the terrorists.”
Rights groups and exiles say the violence in Xinjiang stems more from widespread Uighur resentment at Chinese controls on their religion and culture than the action of a well-organized militant group.
China strongly denies abusing human rights in Xinjiang, and says it is facing a determined campaign from Islamist radicals and separatists.
Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Clarence Fernandez