Beijing (CNN) -- Chinese officials said they killed seven members of the Uighur ethnic group in the restive western region of Xinjiang in order to free two hostages -- an account the Uighurs disputed.
The hostages -- local villagers looking for their lost sheep in the rural county of Pishan outside of Hotan city-- were kidnapped by a group of Uighurs on Wednesday night, said Hou Hanmin, a spokeswoman for the chief of the regional information office in Xinjiang.
The operation to rescue them left one police officer dead and wounded another, he said.
However, Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the Stockholm-based World Uighur Congress, said the shooting did not stem from a rescue operation.
Police opened fire when locals clashed with officers during a demonstration outside the police bureau, he said. The Uighurs were protesting a recent security crackdown in Hotan city.
"This is incident was not an accident," he said. "It is a direct result from the Chinese crackdown on Uighurs. It has become unbearable for Uighurs there to accept the oppression and current rule from the Chinese government."
The Chinese authorities have often blamed militants of Uighur descent for outbreaks of violence in Xinjiang in recent years. Uighurs are ethnic Turks who are linguistically, culturally and religiously distinct from China's majority Han population.
Beijing has said Uighur militants are often based overseas and has linked some of them to the East Turkistan Islamic Movement that allegedly trains in Pakistan.
The clash comes after a two-month security crackdown, which ended in October, against violence, terrorism and radical Islam across the resource-rich region, which borders Pakistan, Afghanistan and numerous unstable Central Asian states.
The tightened security measures included 24-hour security patrols of troubled areas, identity checks and random street searches of people and vehicles.
Uighur activists say the crackdowns have only heightened anger among Uighurs who already accuse the government of religious and political repression. Uighurs also say they feel economically disadvantaged as a thriving Han population continues to move into the region.