BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese police on Thursday shot dead an assailant who attacked a police vehicle with knives in China's far western region of Xinjiang, the latest in a string of violent attacks that have raised concerns of greater instability in the troubled region.
Xinjiang, resource-rich and strategically located on the borders of central Asia and home to the Muslim Uighur people, has been beset by violence for years, blamed by the government on Islamist militants and separatists.
The attack in Aksu city came as police were checking a "suspicious car", the Xinjiang government said on its official news website (www.ts.cn). The suspect attacked them with knives and "hurled burning devices at police patrol cars", state news agency Xinhua said.
The incident followed a bomb and knife attack last Wednesday at a train station in Urumqi, the regional capital of Xinjiang, that killed one bystander and wounded 79.
China has grown increasingly nervous about Islamic militancy since a car burst into flames on the edge of Beijing's Tiananmen Square in October and 29 people were stabbed to death in March in the southwestern city of Kunming.
Aksu is an agricultural hub between the country's western border with Kyrgyzstan and the Taklamakan Desert on the east. Aksu was the home of one of the two bombers killed in the Urumqi blast, according to police.
In February, Xinhua said 11 "terrorists" were killed in Aksu prefecture. They had "attacked a team of police" who were patrolling, it said.
Exiles and many rights groups say the real cause of the unrest in Xinjiang is China's heavy-handed policies, including curbs on Islam and the culture and language of the Uighur people.
The government has blamed previous attacks on terrorists, a term it uses to describe Islamist militants and separatists in Xinjiang who have waged a sometimes violent campaign for an independent East Turkestan state.
Dilxat Raxit, the spokesman for the German-based World Uyghur Congress exile group, said that the incident stemmed from police insulting Uighurs during the vehicle inspection.
Chinese authorities have taken into custody seven Uighurs, and five others who used their mobile phone cameras to film the clash, Raxit said.
Officials at the Xinjiang government did not pick up calls to their mobile phones.
Separately, a court in Kashgar handed down sentences ranging from five to 15 years to five people on crimes of "separatism and endangering national security", the state-run Xinjiang Daily said.
The five had distributed content related to "jihad and (calling on people) to get ready to go to Afghanistan and Pakistan for jihad", the newspaper said, adding that they had also downloaded e-books and videos with content that "incited separatism".
"They had spread extremist religious ideology and promoted religious fanaticism," the newspaper said.
"In Kashgar, more than 300 cadres and students attended the sentencing gathering. People were clapping and cheering the heavy punishments," it added.
More than 100 people, including several policemen, have been killed in violence in Xinjiang since last April, according to state media reports.
(Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee, Additional reporting by Li Hui and Megha Rajagopalan; Editing by Nick Macfie)