Critics question China's handling of alleged terror plot

Security experts question whether claims about Friday's domestic airliner incident amount to state propaganda to bolster a pre-Olympics crackdown.

Since Chinese authorities arrested two airline passengers for allegedly plotting to blow up a domestic flight, some analysts and activists are casting doubt on the state's claim that it had thwarted a pre-Olympics terrorist plot.

The passengers were reportedly arrested after flammable material was found in the airplane's toilet last Friday. The flight originated in western China, a region where pro-independence Uighur rebels are believed to operate, and was bound for Beijing, the host city for this summer's Olympics.

Few details have emerged of the incident, or about why the plane was allowed to continue to Beijing after an emergency landing in the western city of Lanzhou. Questions have also been raised over separate claims that militants in the little-known East Turkmenistan Islamic Movement, a UN-designated terrorist group, are plotting to disrupt the Olympics. Exiled Uighur activists condemned the reports as "falsified" terror plots designed to discredit their cause.

Airport security has been tightened at Urumqi in Xinjiang, the origin of the China Southern Airlines flight, reports the Associated Press. Chinese media, citing security sources, have reported that a young Uighur woman was among those detained. The head of civil aviation said the crew acted after passengers were found with a "suspicious liquid."

The BBC reports that Xinjiang's governor accused the suspects of "an attempt to crash the plane" and said the crew's response had averted "an air disaster."

"Who the people involved in the incident were, where they were from, what their aim was and what their background was, we are now investigating," he said.

On Monday, a US-based Uighur activist accused Beijing of fabricating terror plots to justify further repression of Uighur communities, reports Al Jazeera. The head of the Uighur American Association, Rebiya Kadeer, said the latest incident was a cover for a political crackdown in Xinjiang. Ms. Kadeer asked why the detained suspects from the aircraft weren't paraded before the cameras.

"It seems that the Chinese government has one goal, which is to create this scenario of terrorism, and produce a terrorist action itself so that it can blame the Uighur people," [Kadeer] said.

The oil-rich region of Western China has around 8 million Uighurs, Muslims with ethnic, linguistic, and cultural ties to central Asia. Many resent the Han Chinese majority and restrictions on religious and cultural expressions. Sporadic antigovernment violence flared in the 1990s, but few incidents have been reported in recent years.

News of the alleged attack emerged during China's annual legislative meeting in Beijing. In addition to the apparent aircraft attack, Wang Lequan, a Communist Party leader, saidpolice had shot dead two members of a "terrorist gang" and arrested 15 others during a raid in January in Xinjiang, Reuters reports. He said the gang was been plotting to "damage the Beijing Olympics." In January 2007, Chinese forces killed 18 alleged terrorists in Xinjiang, during what authorities said was a raid on a training camp in the mountains.

So far, Chinese media downplayed the story, the Daily Telegraph in London reported. No mention of the terror plot was carried Monday in the People's Daily, the official party mouthpiece, or by the Chinese-language service of Xinhua, the state-run news agency. Xinhua's English-language report, issued Sunday after Mr. Wang and Mr. Bekri revealed the threats, was later removed from its website.

The Los Angeles Times reports that the alleged aircraft plot followed a hostage-taking last week in the popular tourist destination of Xian. A Chinese man held 10 Australian travel agents hostage on a bus for three hours before being shot dead by a police sniper. No motive was disclosed and the incident added to China's focus on security.

Security experts said China represents an obvious target for extremists given the high-profile nature of the Olympics and promised attendance by various heads of state, including President Bush. But Beijing also may have an interest in linking various plots to the Olympics to increase public support for a broad crackdown, [...] foreign policy experts said.
"It's not a surprise that somehow terrorism would show its head at the Olympics, but it strikes me as awfully early," said Ed Turzanski, senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.
"The Olympics are a high-risk venture," he added. "But I also wouldn't put it past them to use the threat of terrorism to clean up problems they feel they have internally and to get people off their backs, such as human rights groups."

The apparent lax response of Chinese security officials to the incident has puzzled experts, Time magazine reports. Some have speculated that Xinjiang officials wanted to get publicity during the annual legislature, when intraparty competition for leadership attention is fierce. The foiled plots could help to burnish their antiterrorist credentials. But the security clearance given for the flight to continue to Beijing after the suspects were detained in Lanzhou was at odds with the seriousness of the reported plot, said Steven Tsang, a professor at Oxford University.

"This is more like an air rage incident in which you land and get rid of the troublesome passengers and then continue on to your destination. There's no way any anti-terrorism police would have released the plane and passengers to fly on without extensive interviews of the passengers, forensic examination of the plane and so on."

Blogger mutantpalm says that the crew may have overreacted to a false alarm. But China's fettered media are unlikely to dig deeper into reported arrests or ask why so few details are available of recent terror incidents in Xinjiang.

Given the recent wave of Chinese media reports about being vigilant in the face of Xinjiang terrorism in the run-up to the Olympics, its easy enough to imagine that a paranoid flight attendant on a flight from Urumqi might mistake hand cream left in the toilet for a bomb.

China is taking extraordinary measures to prevent any disturbances during the Olympics, including the recruitment of over 600,000 "security volunteers," says The Washington Post. An additional 90,000 police and thousands of military and border security personnel will be deployed. Police are also cracking down on domestic political activists and warily watching overseas pressure groups for any sign of dissent, such as the unfurling of banners protesting China's role in the Darfur crisis.

China has not detailed the exact costs of its security operations, but state media reports last year carried early estimates of about $300 million, a fraction of the $1.8 billion spent in Athens in 2004, the first post-Sept. 11 Summer Olympics. The cost in Beijing, where security forces receive much lower pay, is expected to rise.
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