Uighurs in northwestern China
Uighurs in northwestern China Creative Common

Clashes between protesters and police in western China’s troubled Xinjiang region killed at least 27 people on Wednesday, in one of the deadliest instances of violence to hit the region in recent years.

The riots erupted in the morning in Lukqun township of Shanshan County in Turpan Prefecture, after a mob brandishing knives attacked the township’s police stations and administrative buildings, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

Nine policemen and eight civilians were killed in the attack, before police opened fire killing 10 rioters, the report said. The reason for the violence remains unclear, but Xinhua said authorities have launched an investigation into the incident.

Xinjiang has long been plagued by tensions between Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim Turkic-speaking minority population of around 10 million, and China’s Han ethnic majority. The Uighur community has long blamed Chinese authorities for discrimination, repression and unfair treatment, which they say has resulted in economic inequality for its people.

China accuses some Uighur groups of having links with Islamist militant outfits in Pakistan and Central Asia, and of launching attacks to establish an independent state called East Turkistan.

The Xinjiang region lies more than 3,000 kilometers (about 2000 miles) to the west of Beijing, and is culturally and economically closer to the countries of central Asia than it is to China's economic powerhouses on the country's east coast.

Dilshat Rexit, a spokesman for the World Uighur Congress, a group that the Chinese central government has termed as separatist, told Agence France-Presse that “continued repression and provocation is the cause of conflict.”

In April, clashes near Kashgar in Xinjiang killed 21 people, the worst bout of violence in the region since July 2009 when around 200 people were killed in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi.