The government-appointed head of China's largest mosque has been murdered after conducting morning prayers, the local government in the far western region of Xinjiang has said.
State media report on Thursday that Jume Tahir, the Uighur imam of the 600-year-old Id Kah mosque in the city of Kashgar, was killed on Wednesday 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. Tianshan added 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 house, US-based Radio Free Asia reported earlier on its website.
The death comes days after possibly one of the deadliest incidents in Xinjiang in years, where rebel Muslim Uighurs have been fighting for independence.
On Monday, the government said a gang armed with knives and axes killed or injured dozens of people in Shache county near eastern Xinjiang city of Kashgar. Police returned fire, with the death toll estimated to be as high as 200. Neither Tahir's murder nor Monday's violence could be independently verified.
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 likely made him a target or rebels.
The official reports identified the three suspects as Tuergong Tuerxun, Maimaiti Jiangremutila, and Nuermaimaiti Abidilimiti, the Chinese renderings of Uighur names.
The reports said the suspects attempted to resist arrest with knives and axes. The reports did not say which of the three were killed.