Chinese police detained five people for suspected links to the crashing of a vehicle into tourists in Beijing and called it a terrorist attack, a sign that violence in restive Xinjiang is spilling into other areas.
Police found knives and religious material in the sport-utility vehicle, which was driven by a man whose mother and wife were inside when it crashed near Tiananmen Square, the official Xinhua News Agency reported yesterday. The incident, which left all three plus two tourists from the Philippines and the Chinese province of Guangdong dead, was “carefully planned, organized and premeditated,” Xinhua reported, citing the police.
The attack occurred a few blocks from China’s Zhongnanhai leadership compound around two weeks before the Communist Party gathers to discuss economic-policy reforms. Police said the car had a license plate from the western region of Xinjiang, which has experienced sporadic protests by ethnic Uighurs against Chinese rule.
Police captured the five suspects within 10 hours of the Oct. 28 crash with help from authorities in Xinjiang, Xinhua reported. They were identified by names that aren’t typical of Han Chinese, without being described as Uighurs. The suspects said they knew Usmen Hasan, the driver of the car, Xinhua added.
In a separate incident, Chinese police detained a person who made bomb threats against several airlines today, Xinhua said. A Beijing Capital Airlines flight from Changsha in central China to the eastern city of Hangzhou was forced to land after a threat, airline official Chen Qian said by phone. Xiamen Airlines and Sichuan Airlines also received threats, officials said.
The fact the SUV attack occurred in the center of Beijing shows how authorities may struggle to confine the Uighur issue, said Dru Gladney, a professor of anthropology at Pomona College in Claremont, California who studies Xinjiang and the Uighurs.
“Uighurs are in every part of China, so it shouldn’t surprise that something should hit Beijing,” Gladney said by phone. “There is clearly a simmering discontent and it’s going to boil over until the situation changes.”
While about 90 percent of China’s population is ethnic Han, more than 40 percent of Xinjiang’s 22 million people are Uighurs, some of whom have protested the government’s decades-long policy of encouraging Han migration to the area, as well as restrictions on religious freedom. Xinjiang was the scene of clashes in 2009 between the mostly Muslim Uighur minority and Han that left almost 200 people dead.
The 2009 violence was sparked by a brawl in a toy factory in southern Guangdong, Gladney said.
The World Uyghur Congress, a Munich-based group that calls for independence for Xinjiang, said it is concerned the incident will incite a “fierce state crackdown” in the region, according to an Oct. 29 statement posted on its website.
“The Chinese government will not hesitate to concoct a version of the incident in Beijing, so as to further impose repressive measures on the Uyghur people,” Congress President Rebiya Kadeer said in the statement, using an alternative spelling for the ethnic group.
Punishing terrorists based on law is necessary to uphold social order and basic human rights, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said today in response to a question about the incident. China is against connecting terrorism to any ethnic group or religion, she told reporters in Beijing.
“Some people linking a small group of extremists and violent people to China’s policy on ethnic groups and religion and using this as an excuse to attack China’s policy is wrong and has motivations,” Hua said.
The SUV plowed into a crowd of tourists about noon on Oct. 28 at Tiananmen Gate, near where the portrait of Mao Zedong hangs, crashed into a guard rail and burst into flames. The attackers set the SUV on fire after the crash, state broadcaster China Central Television reported yesterday, citing closed-circuit images. Philippine and Japanese nationals were among the 40 injured, according to Xinhua.
Security has remained tight in central Beijing, with police regularly patrolling the square, where student protests in 1989 advocated democracy and an end to official corruption. Individuals and their belongings are subject to security screenings before entering.
In March 1997, an explosion from a home-made bomb ripped through a public bus just west of the square in the Xidan section of the city. In 2009 three people inside a car set themselves on fire a few blocks from the square.
In July, China ordered paramilitary troops to patrol around the clock in Xinjiang before the anniversary of the 2009 clashes, after an outbreak of violence in the region’s Lukqun township left 35 people dead on June 26.
China views groups pushing for greater independence as seditious, and authorities have blamed past violence on religious extremists trained in Pakistan at camps run by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. China said the June violence, in which attackers armed with knives killed 24, was linked to overseas terrorist forces.
“This is first time in many years that an incident involving Uighurs has taken place in the capital,” Willy Lam Wo-Lap, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said by phone. “It is a loss of face for the police and state security. So they don’t want to dramatize this too much considering the large sums of money they have devoted to maintaining the security apparatus.”
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