Chinese officials say 21 people were killed after a fight broke out during a police investigation of suspected criminals in the latest act of violence in the restive northwest province of Xinjiang.
The clashes began Tuesday, when social workers came across what state media referred to as "suspicious individuals and knives" in a house in western Kashgar prefecture.
An official at the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region news office confirmed the incident in an interview with VOA.
"While [the social workers] were in the process of reporting this to their superiors they were apprehended by bandits who were hiding in the home. Afterwards policemen and community cadres at the local police station went to handle the matter, and the bandits killed the police and community workers who were inside the home," said the official.
The Xinjiang official, who did not wish to be named, said the suspects set fire to the house during the clashes. Fifteen social workers and police were killed, while six "gang members" were shot dead. Another eight were captured.
The official said the incident was "definitely a premeditated, violent act of terror." State media said the group was plotting to use the weapons to "launch terror activities." Such accusations are common against ethnic Uighurs involved in violence.
Xinjiang is an ethnically divided region that sees occasional clashes, mainly between the predominantly Muslim Uighur community, the Han Chinese settler majority, and government security forces.
Ethnic tensions in Xinjiang have been simmering since a series of riots in 2009 killed over 200 people in the regional capital of Urumqi. Subsequent clashes also broke out, prompting what activists say is a heavy crackdown on the Uighur community.
The government says the increased security is needed to deal with what it says are Muslim extremists and militant separatists who are inciting violence. Foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying echoed that claim during a regular briefing on Wednesday.
"The current situation in Xinjiang is good in general, but a small cluster of terrorist forces are still doing their very best to disturb and sabotage Xinjiang's stability and development. I believe their scheme goes against the will of the people and is doomed to fail," said Hua.
In addition to the heavy police presence, China has increased aid to Xinjiang in an attempt to combat poverty, which it considers to be a root cause of the violence.
But many of the Turkic-speaking Uighurs say they are still economically and culturally disadvantaged, and face widespread discrimination resulting from a massive influx of ethnic Han Chinese into the region.