BISHKEK (Reuters) - Eleven people believed to be members of a militant group of ethnic Uighurs have been killed in Kyrgyzstan after illegally crossing into the former Soviet republic from China, Kyrgyz border guards said on Friday.
Kyrgyzstan, a mainly Muslim nation of 5.5 million which lies on a drug trafficking route out of Afghanistan, remains volatile after popular uprisings that have deposed two presidents since 2005 and after violent ethnic clashes in its south in 2010.
But its remote, ragged border with China’s restive Xinjiang province - home to the ethnic Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking mainly Muslim people - has been calm.
“According to their appearance, (those killed) were Uighurs, while things found on them showed that they belonged to an organization of Uighur separatists,” Raimberdi Duishenbiyev, acting head of Kyrgyz border guards, told a news conference.
After crossing the border in a mountainous area of northeast Kyrgyzstan on Thursday, the group ran into a local hunter who killed two of them before himself being killed, he added.
The attackers seized the hunter’s gun but were later blocked by border guards from a nearby frontier post. A unit of special-task forces flown to the area by helicopter killed the remaining nine men after they refused to surrender.
The hunter’s gun appeared to be the only firearm held by the group, who lightly wounded a border guard and shouted back in Uighur during the skirmish.
“Allah is greatest!” they chanted before dying, Duishenbiyev said. The guards found a Koran, black masks, knives and topographic maps printed in China at the scene.
Kyrgyz border guards informed their Chinese counterparts about the incident but the Chinese said they had detected no cases of illegal crossing of the border, Duishenbiyev said.
“One of our versions is that this was an attempt to seize weapons from local herders and hunters and commit acts of terror here and then return to their native country,” said Gulmira Borubayeva, spokeswoman for the border guards.
Kyrgyzstan, together with its Central Asian neighbors Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation led by China and Russia, which sees militant Islamists as a major threat to regional security.
Rights groups say China has intensified a sweeping security crackdown in Xinjiang, repressing Uighur culture, religious tradition and language. Beijing firmly rejects such criticism, saying it offers the Uighurs wide-ranging freedoms.
Experts say China’s repression of religious practices has pushed some Uighurs to embrace Islamic traditions more strongly.
Reporting by Olga Dzyubenko; Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Gareth Jones