Chinese authorities have jailed 20 people in far-western Xinjiang who they said were from five terrorist groups involved in “spreading separatism” through the Internet, amid a “strike hard” campaign that officials have launched to counter recent unrest in the Muslim-majority region.

The 20 people had “plotted violent attacks in an attempt to split Xinjiang from China”, the Communist Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper said in a report on Thursday. They were sentenced to jail-terms ranging from 18 months to 15 years following a court hearing held last month, which fell on the third anniversary of violence in the region that left close to 200 people dead.

Four of those charged had “illegally made bombs and trained others to prepare for the terrorist attack under the name of ‘protecting them from Han nationalities,’” the report said, referring to the majority Han Chinese ethnic group.

The report said the others had “published books and videos containing violence to incite ethnic hatred and provoke a so-called ‘holy war’ against the nation.” All 20 people were understood to have been Uighurs, the ethnic Turkic Muslim group native to Xinjiang.

Ten people, the report said, had appealed the ruling, which had later been upheld by a higher court on July 13.

China has blamed Uighur separatists – some of whom, officials have said, had links to groups based in Pakistan – for carrying out violent attacks last year that left at least 40 people dead in the cities of Kashgar and Hotan, two cities near the far-western border with Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).

Riots in the capital in Urumqi in July 2009 that left at least 197 people killed were also blamed by the authorities on separatist groups, although Uighur scholars have said the unrest was sourced in rising resentment between locals and the increasing number of Han Chinese migrants. Some Uighurs have accused the government of inflating the terror threat to curb religious activities and restrict freedom of

expression, with separatism charges invoked, in the past, to jail Uighur journalists and activists.

In April, China launched a “strike hard” campaign, which included increased monitoring of the Internet, to target separatist groups. At a government meeting earlier this year, the Communist Party secretary in Xinjiang, Zhang Chunxian, said officials would “work more closely with the masses to detect terrorist activity”, adopt a “tougher stance” to incidents of violence, and monitor religious activities.

That same month, the Ministry of Public Security in Beijing released a list of six “wanted” terror suspects, alleged to be members of the extremist East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), some of whom were

based in Pakistan. Chinese officials blamed Pakistan-trained separatists for the attacks in Hotan last year, following which Xinjiang Governor Nur Bekri claimed that extremists in the region had “a thousand and one links” to Pakistan.

More In: International | News