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Juma Tayir speaks during an interview at Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar in this still image taken from video dated August 3, 2011. REUTERS/ Reuters TV(reuters_tickers)
BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese police have concluded that an 18-year-old, who was influenced by religious extremism, was the mastermind behind the murder of a state-backed imam in China's western Xinjiang region, state media said on Monday.
In late July, three suspected Islamist militants armed with knives and axes attacked Juma Tayir, a well-known pro-government Uighur who led prayers at China's biggest mosque, in Xinjiang, according to Chinese authorities.
Two of the attackers were later shot dead by police while the third, Nurmemet Abidili, was arrested.
Xinjiang, home to the Muslim Uighur people, who speak a Turkic language, has been beset by violence for years. The government blames the violence on Islamist militants or separatists who it says want to establish an independent state called East Turkestan.
Exiled Uighur groups and human rights activists say the government's repressive policies in Xinjiang, including controls on Islam, have provoked unrest, a claim Beijing denies.
The state-run China Daily newspaper, citing police, said late on Sunday Aini Aishan, 18, was "the alleged mastermind behind the murder" of the imam.
Aini Aishan had instructed Nurmemet Abidili on Islam, "showing him the terrorist videos and teaching him about religious extremism", the Xinjiang Daily reported on Monday. It cited interviews with Aini Aishan and Nurmemet Abidili.
Aini Aishan believed the imam, Juma Tayir, had "twisted the meaning of the Koran and that killing someone so influential would create a large impact", the report said.
"The goal is to kill Juma Tayir so you can go to heaven," it quoted Aini Aishan as telling two of the attackers.
Aini Aishan taught Nurmemet Abidili about jihad - an Islamic holy war - according to the Xinjiang Daily. "The first time I heard the word 'jihad, I was really excited, I wanted to conduct 'jihad' and do great things," the newspaper quoted Nurmemet Abidili as saying.
Aini Aishan had come into "contact with a local religious extremist group in January 2013 and obtained violent terrorist videos as well as prohibited religious publications so he could preach to other people", the newspaper reported.
Hundreds of people have been killed in Xinjiang over the past year. China often blames the violence on religious militants.
Tayir was a controversial figure among Uighurs. In 2009, he backed the government after it quashed riots in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi, in which nearly 200 people were killed.
(Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Paul Tait)