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Chinese police kill eight in Xinjiang 'terrorist attack'

BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese police shot dead eight people during a "terrorist attack" in the western region of Xinjiang on Monday, the government said, raising the death toll from violent clashes there to at least 35 since November.

The attack happened in Yarkand county close to the old Silk Road city of Kashgar in Xinjiang's south, the regional government said in a statement on its news website (www.ts.cn).

"At around 6:30 a.m., nine thugs carrying knives attacked a police station in Kashgar's Yarkand county, throwing explosive devices and setting police cars on fire," it said.

"The police took decisive measures, shooting dead eight and capturing one," it added, labeling the incident a "violent terrorist attack" which was being investigated.

Xinjiang is home to a Turkic-speaking, Muslim people known as Uighurs, some of whom resent what they see as oppressive treatment by the government.

At least 91 people, including several police officers, have been killed in violence in Xinjiang since April, according to state media reports.

This month, police shot and killed 14 people during a riot near Kashgar in which two policemen were also killed.

In a similar outburst of violence, at least nine civilians and two policemen were killed when a group of people armed with axes and knives attacked a police station, also near Kashgar, last month, state media has said.

China has previously blamed some of the violence in Xinjiang on Islamist militants plotting holy war.

"STRIKE HARD"

The latest attack showed the serious threat posed by separatism, extremism and terrorism, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters at a regular press briefing.

"The Chinese government will strike hard against them in accordance with the law," Qin said.

Many Uighurs chafe at restrictions on their culture, language and religion, though the government insists it grants them broad freedoms.

Rights groups and exiles say police often use often heavy-handed tactics against the Uighur community. Violence has broken out previously when groups of Uighurs protest at police stations, they say.

Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the main Uighur exile group, the World Uyghur Congress, said the international community should prevent China from continuing its "repressive policies" against Uighurs.

"Directly firing on and killing protesters and accusing them of so-called terror is currently China's post-judicial reform means of repressing the Uighur people. Uighurs endure China's discrimination and humiliation and are facing a crisis for survival and faith," he said in an emailed statement.

China has stepped up security in Xinjiang after a vehicle ploughed into tourists on the edge of Beijing's Tiananmen Square in October, killing three people in the car and two bystanders.

China said the attack was carried out by Islamist militants.

Xinjiang has been the scene of numerous incidents of unrest in recent years, which the government often blames on the separatist East Turkestan Islamic Movement, even though many experts and rights groups cast doubt on its existence as a cohesive group.

Many rights groups say China has long overplayed the threat posed to justify its tough controls in energy-rich Xinjiang, which lies strategically on the borders of Central Asia, India and Pakistan.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Michael Martina; Editing by Nick Macfie and Robert Birsel)

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