Top official in China's restive Xinjiang replaced

Cars drive along a bridge after snowfall in Urumqi, Xinjiang Autonomous region.

BEIJING - The second most senior official in China's strife-torn Xinjiang region has been replaced, state media said, after the area saw some of its worst violence in decades.

Nur Bekri will be replaced as the area's vice Communist Party secretary by Shohrat Zakir, the official Xinhua news agency said in a brief dispatch late Tuesday.

Both men are Uighurs, the nine-million-strong Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim ethnic minority that counts Xinjiang as their homeland.

Violence linked to Xinjiang has intensified over the past year, with at least 200 people killed in a series of clashes and increasingly sophisticated attacks in the resource-rich region and beyond it.

But Nur Bekri would be given another post, Xinhua said, indicating that he had not been dismissed.

He was appointed to the party post in 2003 and became head of the regional government in 2008, retaining his job even as unrest spiralled, including 2009 riots between Uighurs and China's ethnic majority Han that left about 200 people dead.

Xinhua did not say what Nur Bekri's next appointment will be, but his holding the party post for more than a decade suggests Communist Party authorities in Beijing have approved of his work.

The top official in Xinjiang remains Zhang Chunxian, who was appointed as regional party secretary in 2010 after his predecessor was sacked in a move widely seen as a bid to placate public anger following the riots.

Beijing, which blames Xinjiang-related violence on "religious extremists", "separatists", and "terrorists", has responded to the current series of incidents by launching a severe crackdown in recent months, with hundreds of arrests and around 50 death sentences handed down.

The campaign has extended to academics such as prominent Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti, who in September was sentenced to life in prison for "separatism". Seven of Tohti's students have been jailed on the same charge.

Rights groups have condemned the targeting of Tohti, a respected economist and moderate who had long denounced the repression of Uighurs.

They argue that harsh police treatment of the minority as well as government campaigns against religious practices such as the wearing of veils have led to violence.

China denies allegations of repression, saying it has brought badly needed modernisation and economic development to the vast and landlocked region bordering Central Asia.