China has announced on Monday that security forces have clamped down on "181 terror gangs" in the restive western region of Xinjiang (East Turkestan), home to the Turkic-speaking Muslim Uighur people, days after ordering nearly five million people to surrender their passports.
According to state media, "terror gangs" have been targeted in a crackdown since last May when a bomb attack killed 39 people in resource-rich Xinjiang's capital Urumqi, with 112 suspects having surrendered to the police.
Hundreds of people have been killed in unrest in Xinjiang in the past two years, where China's repressive policies - including controls on religion and Uighur culture - have intensified. With some Uighurs trying to flee the area, Beijing has enacted its latest attempt to restrict freedom of movement.
Analysts say most of the economic benefits of the strategic region, which is located on the borders of central Asia and is crucial for China's growing energy needs, have gone to the Han Chinese - the country's biggest ethnic group - stoking resentment among Uighurs.
Meanwhile, nearly 5 million people in China’s far west Ili Kazakh Autonomous region have been ordered to hand their passports to the police indefinitely. The police said if the passports are not handed over, they will be cancelled.
Passport restrictions have long been used by Chinese authorities to control and suppress dissidents, Muslim Uighurs and Tibetans.
While the government justifies the restrictions on the grounds of public safety and preventing people from joining militant groups abroad, human rights activists say Beijing aims to stop Uighur refugees fleeing repression with their families.
The Communist party has recently ordered Uighurs to stock and sell alcohol and cigarettes in attractive displays, despite the fact that many Muslims consider it a sin to sell alcohol for religious reasons.
Uighurs are subjected to discrimination in many respects, including being prevented from practising their faith openly, banned from growing beards and wearing headscarves, being prevented from teaching their children the Qur'an and being forbidden from fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.