The United States is calling for a thorough and transparent investigation into a confrontation in China's restive northwest province of Xinjiang that left 21 people dead.
State Department spokesperson Patrick Ventrell says the U.S. is "deeply concerned" by the Tuesday violence, which Beijing was quick to label as a "terrorist attack."
"We regret the unfortunate acts of violence that led to these casualties and we’ll continue to encourage Chinese officials to take steps to reduce tensions and promote long-term stability in Xinjiang," he said.
The clashes began when community workers came across what state media describe as "suspicious individuals and knives" at a house in western Kashgar prefecture.
Fifteen police and officials were killed in the ensuing violence, while six "gang members" were shot dead. Another eight people were captured. A provincial official told VOA the incident was a "premeditated, violent act of terror."
Another official, quoted in Thursday's Communist Party-run Global Times says the group was planning to conduct an "elaborate attack" and was involved in "extreme religious activities," a common accusation against those in Xinjiang's predominantly Muslim Uighur community.
Some exiled Uighur activists dispute Beijing's version of events. The World Uighur Congress says the violence broke out when Chinese forces shot and killed a young Uighur as part of a government crackdown on the ethnic minority group.
James Leibold, a Beijing-based scholar on Chinese minority populations, says the truth is difficult to discern in cases like this. He tells VOA that the government explanation must be viewed with "extreme caution."
"[The government] tends to want to play the blame game very quickly. Local officials, in this regard, will often use words like terrorism, jihadist, and blame Islamic extremism, when incidents of violence and unrest happen in Xinjiang," he said.
Leibold says incidents of ethnic conflict in Xinjiang are often more complex and are rooted in a wide range of local dynamics.
"The rapidly changing nature of Xinjiang society, which creates a sense of social, cultural and religious dislocation, Han trans-migration into the area, restrictions on religious worship, and of course, there are outside influences that we can't rule out, [such as] Islamic extremism," he said.
Leibold warns that, just as government explanations must be viewed with caution, so should those by exiled Uighur groups.
"Both sides have an agenda and are trying to control the narrative and are trying to control how this incident is broadcast to the larger world," he said.
Many in the Turkic-speaking Uighur community say they are economically and culturally disadvantaged and face widespread discrimination resulting from a massive influx of ethnic Han Chinese into the region.
Ethnic tensions in Xinjiang have been simmering since a series of riots in 2009 killed more than 200 people in the regional capital of Urumqi. Subsequent clashes also broke out, prompting what activists say is a heavy-handed crackdown on the Uighur community.
Ventrell, the State Department spokesperson, addressed those grievances during his regular briefing on Wednesday. He says Washington is "deeply concerned by ongoing reports of discrimination against and restrictions on Uighurs and other Muslims in China" and urges Beijing to "cease policies that seek to restrict the practice of religious beliefs across China."
China angrily dismissed the criticism on Thursday. Hua Chunying, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said the U.S. should stop making "wild accusations about Chinese policy toward ethnic minorities."
She also blasted Washington for failing to condemn the violence. She told reporters that U.S. leaders should be more sympathetic toward Chinese policies since both countries are dealing with violent terrorist attacks.