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Imam of China's largest mosque killed by 'thugs,' state media says

State-appointed imam found dead in pool of his own blood outside prayer hall

The government-appointed head of China's largest mosque was murdered after conducting morning prayers on Wednesday, the local government in the far-western region of Xinjiang said Thursday.

State media reported that Jume Tahir, the Uighur imam of the 600-year-old Id Kah mosque in the city of Kashgar, was killed by "three thugs influenced by religious extremist ideology," the Xinjiang state website Tianshan said.

Police launched an all-out investigation and shot dead two of the alleged assailants while capturing the other, Tianshan said. The website said Tahir's killing was "premeditated" and that the suspects intended to commit a "ruthless murder."

Tahir was found dead in a pool of blood outside the mosque's prayer hall, Radio Free Asia reported.

The death comes days after possibly one of the deadliest incidents in Xinjiang in years. On Monday, the government said a gang armed with knives and axes killed or injured dozens of people in Shache County near Kashgar. Police returned fire, with the death toll estimated to be as high as 200. The Chinese government blamed separatist predominantly Muslim Uighurs for the clash.

Neither Tahir's murder nor Monday's violence could be independently verified. Uighurs in Xinjiang are routinely arrested by law enforcement — both official and civilian informants — for speaking to international media.

In every one of the armed attacks that have swept China in recent months, killing scores at train stations and monuments, the Chinese government had cleaned up the site of the incident within 24 hours.

Uighur rights advocates often point out that in a tightly restricted media environment like China's, nearly all the information on Uighur affairs and the attacks attributed to Uighur separatists come from Chinese official sources.

The imam's death also comes amid reports that Ilham Tohti, a prominent advocate for better understanding of the socioeconomic issues faced by Uighurs, may soon face trial on charges of inciting separatism.

Tahir's high-profile support for the government — the report referred to him as a "patriotic religious personage" — and his criticism of violence in Xinjiang probably made him a target of rebels.

Official reports identified the three suspects as Tuergong Tuerxun, Maimaiti Jiangremutila, and Nuermaimaiti Abidilimiti, the Chinese renderings of Uighur names.

The suspects reportedly attempted to resist arrest with knives and axes. The reports did not specify which of the three were killed. 

Al Jazeera and wire services  

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