Chief imam at Kashgar mosque stabbed to death as violence surges in Xinjiang

Beijing - A high-profile Xinjiang imam who had staunchly supported the Communist party was stabbed to death on Wednesday, it has emerged, explaining the shutdown that saw roads closed and internet access and text messaging shut off in Kashgar.

The death of Jume Tahir, chief imam at the city's main mosque and a former deputy to the official National People's Congress (NPC), comes amid an upsurge in violence in the north-western region. It was described by some as an assassination.

Dozens died in violence in townships near Kashgar on Monday, the day before Eid, with police blaming a terrorist attack while Uighur exiles accused police of shooting people protesting against a "heavy-handed Ramadan crackdown … and extrajudicial use of lethal force". Authorities in Xinjiang had ordered civil servants, students and others not to fast.

While officials blame separatists and religious extremists for instigating violence in their bid for an independent Xinjiang, others say the underlying cause of tensions are Muslim Uighur resentment at cultural and religious controls, Han Chinese migration and economic inequity.

Tahir was deputy president of the Xinjiang Islamic Association. On Thursday a spokesman confirmed his death but said he could not add any further details. At the Kashgar Islamic Association, a man said he could not discuss the case and had no authority to disclose information.

No official comment has been made on Tahir's killing and calls to police and propaganda officials rang unanswered.

Radio Free Asia quoted the director of a neighbourhood stability committee in Kashgar as saying: "He was a patriotic religious person, he lost his life in an assassination … Right now, we are busy making arrangements for his funeral."

On Wednesday, a western tourist told Reuters he had seen a bloodied body outside the Id Kah mosque and two men with knives running away.

Internet access in Kashgar was restored late on Wednesday and roads reopened.

The Id Kah mosque, almost six centuries old, is thought to be the largest in China, with room for thousands of worshippers.

Tahir was frequently quoted by state media praising the party and condemning separatists. In 2010 he told a meeting at the annual session of the NPC: "Some hostile forces in and outside China have made use of religion to carry out penetration, sabotage and secessionist activities in Xinjiang, and they also sowed discord between religious people and non-religious people. So we must keep vigilance."

Last year, Uighur imam Abdurehim Damaolla was stabbed to death outside his home in Turpan after condemning Uighurs who had become involved in a violent clash as terrorists, and helping police arrest suspects.