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July 20, 2011 1:11 AM PDT

China on Wednesday raised the death toll to 18 from a clash at a police station in the restive far western region of Xinjiang, saying that 14 "rioters" died along with two policemen and two hostages in the worst violence there in a year.

Government officials previously said at least four people were killed in what they described as a terrorist attack but which the Germany-based exile group World Uyghur Congress said was an attack on peaceful protesters.

The congress had said 20 Uighurs were killed -- 14 beaten to death and 6 shot dead -- and 70 arrested, when police opened fire on protesters, leading to fighting between the two sides.

The clash marked the worst violence in about a year in the far western region, home to many Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking people native to the area, many of whom resent the growing presence of majority Han Chinese in Xinjiang.

The Xinjiang government's website (www.xinjiang.gov.cn) said that police fatally shot the 14 rioters after giving "legal education and warnings," adding that 18 rioters had bought and made weapons and sneaked into the desert city of Hotan days before the clash on Monday.

The report said the rioters, armed with axes, knives, daggers, Molotov cocktails and explosive devices, "crazily beat, smashed and set on fire" the police station, and hung "flags of extreme religion" on the top of the station.

It said two policemen and two hostages were also killed in the clash, and that four of the rioters were arrested.

"It was an organized, premeditated and severe violent terrorist attack to local politics-and-law departments," the report said.

The differing accounts from the government and exile group could not be independently verified.

The website also showed three pictures it said were taken on the scene of the incident, showing police with guns storming into a police station, which in one photo was on fire.

Reuters could not verify the authenticity of the pictures.

"REPRESSION MAKING SITUATION WORSE"

Rights groups say Xinjiang remains under tight security, more than two years after its capital Urumqi was rocked by violence between Han Chinese and Uighurs that killed nearly 200 people.

Since then, China has executed nine people it blamed for instigating the riots, detained and prosecuted hundreds and ramped up spending on security, according to state media and overseas rights groups.

"China's strengthening of repression and controls has only made the situation worse," said Dilxat Raxit, of the World Uyghur Congress. "China uses force to put down any kind of peaceful protest by Uighurs."

The Global Times, a popular tabloid published by Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily, said incidents such as that in Hotan "will not lead to collapse as some Westerners have predicted."

"They will not have a colossal impact even if they take place at Tiananmen Square in downtown Beijing," it said in an editorial in its English-language edition.

"Those who underestimate China's social capacity actually underestimate the entire nation," it added. "As for terrorism, the authorities should take a tough stand and ignore unreasonable rebukes from the West."

Beijing, wary of instability and the threat to the Communist Party's grip on power, often blames what it calls violent separatist groups in Xinjiang for attacks on police or other government targets, saying they work with al Qaeda or Central Asian militants to bring about an independent state called East Turkestan.

Xinjiang is strategically vital to China and Beijing has shown no sign of loosening its grip.

A vast swath of territory, accounting for one-sixth of China's land mass, Xinjiang holds rich deposits of oil and gas and borders Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Central Asia.

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