At least 20 people were killed in China's Xinjiang region on Tuesday in violence that the government blamed on separatists. The incident underscored the ethnic tension in the far-western Muslim-majority region that has erupted intermittently in recent months.

The government said attackers armed with knives killed at least 13 people and injured many on a busy pedestrian street in the county of Kargilik, or Yecheng in Chinese, which is located around 250 km from Kashgar. The ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar, situated near China's border with Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), was the scene of similar violence last July, when attackers armed with knives assaulted pedestrians and set off bombs, killing at least 20 people. The local government said the police had shot dead “seven violent terrorists” and captured two.

The government blamed last year's violence on extremist groups who they said had been trained in camps in Pakistan. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei said it was “not yet known” who was behind Tuesday's violence.

Kashgar is largely inhabited by Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim group native to Xinjiang and one of 55 ethnic minorities in China. Some locals have blamed the recent ethnic tensions on the increasing migration of China's majority Han Chinese to the region. In July 2009, at least 197 people were killed in Urumqi, the regional capital, following riots which also sparked protests in Kashgar.

The government, however, says the presence of Han Chinese migrants is only a natural result of the increasing development the region has seen in recent years, reflecting growing commercial opportunities. “The overall situation in Xinjiang is quite good,” said Mr. Hong. “It is exactly because of such good momentum that all the people in Xinjiang of different groups support Xinjiang's road to development. We firmly oppose a few handful of terrorists, and separatists' activities in sabotaging such unity and development.”

During a visit to Kashgar last August, several local Uighur residents told The Hindu in interviews that while the region had seen development and improved infrastructure, a number of restrictions on religious activities and the presence of security personnel had heightened tensions. In recent weeks, the local government has boosted the deployment of security personnel, setting up additional checkpoints ahead of the start of the annual meeting of the Chinese Parliament in Beijing on March 3, local reports and residents said.

Following last year's violence in Kashgar and nearby Hotan, the local government initiated campaigns to stop private religious study. In the town of Yining, authorities also introduced a controversial campaign to encourage local Uighurs to not wear traditional clothes.

Pan Zhiping, a scholar at the Northwest Minority Research Center in Urumqi, told The Hindu there had been “some small frictions” in implementing the policies. He, however, added that he believed the Kashgar region was “under the extreme influence of Islamism,” and that some people were “brainwashed by the religious extremists there”.

The “Dilute religious consciousness; advocate a civilised healthy lifestyle” campaign in Yining was introduced to encourage people to stop what local authorities described in an official notice as an “abnormal phenomenon” of wearing traditional Muslim clothes. The notice, the Global Times newspaper reported, said “stubborn individuals who refused to give up their veils, Arab dress or long beards should be educated.”

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