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BEIJING (Reuters) - The deadliest unrest in years in China's western region of Xinjiang was carried out by a gang engaged in "religious extremist activities", state media reported, saying the group had been busy buying weapons and raising money.
Beijing initially called last week's incident in which 35 people were killed a "terrorist attack".
Xinjiang is home to the mainly Muslim Uighur people who speak a Turkic language. Many deeply resent what they call Chinese government restrictions on their culture, language and religion. Beijing accuses extremists of separatism.
The animosity between the majority Han Chinese and the Uighurs poses a major challenge for China's Communist Party leaders. President Xi Jinping, who took office in March, has called for the unity of all ethnic groups in China.
According to reports on the government website of Xinjiang and the state news agency Xinhua, last week's attacks occurred after police arrested a member of the gang.
The next day the same gang went on a rampage in the remote township of Lukqun, about 200 km (120 miles) southeast of Xinjiang's capital of Urumqi.
The group attacked a police station, shops and a construction site. Twenty-four civilians, both Uighur and Han Chinese, and police were killed, along with 11 gang members.
"Since February, Ahmatniyaz Siddiq and others were engaged in religious extremist activities, listening to violent terrorist recordings," said the reports.
"They formed a violent terrorist group of 17 members, and since mid-June were raising money, and buying knives, gasoline and other tools for crime."
Last week's killings marked the deadliest unrest since July 2009, when nearly 200 people were killed in riots pitting Uighurs against ethnic Chinese in the region's capital Urumqi.
"Terrorist organizations should be aware that the Chinese nation and its people are determined to safeguard the country's territorial integrity and national unity against all enemies," Xinhua said in a separate commentary on Sunday.
"Any attempt to sabotage will eventually fail."
Two days after the deadly attack, more than a hundred people, riding motorbikes and wielding knives, attacked a police station in Xinjiang, state media reported.
(Reporting by Li Hui and Terril Yue Jones; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)