Sixteen Chinese border police officers died Monday in what police said was a suspected terrorist attack in western Xinjiang Province. The attack comes four days before the start of the Beijing Olympics and highlights the potential security threats to the Games, which authorities have repeatedly warned could be targeted by the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and other extremist groups in China. The ETIM is said to draw its support from disgruntled Uighurs, a Muslim minority, living in Xinjiang. But critics accuse China of inflating the threat posed by ETIM, which advocates a separate Uighur homeland.
Xinhua reports that two unnamed attackers drove a dump truck into a team of border police during a Monday morning jog near their barracks, killing 14 officers on the spot. Two other officers died on the way to the hospital. The attack occurred in Kashgar, the westernmost city in China.
The two attackers got off the lorry after the vehicle veered to hit a roadside wire pole. They threw home-made explosives to the barracks, causing explosion. They also hacked the policemen with knives.
The police said the two attackers had been arrested, and one got a leg injury in the raid.
Police found debris of five explosives in the division yard.
According to Bloomberg, the Xinhua English-language report quoted above said that the assault was a "terrorist attack," but that wording was changed to "violent crime" in a Chinese-language report that the state news agency issued two hours later.
Details about the attack remain to be confirmed. The Guardian reports that Chinese state television gave a slightly different account of Monday's incident, saying the paramilitary police were doing their morning drills outside a hotel when the attackers struck.
The Washington Post, meanwhile, quotes a hotel receptionist in Kashgar as saying two explosions were heard around 8 a.m., after which police blocked off the road. Chinese authorities did not mention the ethnicity or describe the possible motive of the two arrested suspects.
Authorities have warned of terrorist plots to disrupt the Olympics and have recently stepped up efforts against extremist organizations. Last month, three people were executed in a town near Kashgar after being convicted of being ETIM members. A day earlier, five Uighurs died after police raided an apartment in Urumq, reports The Washington Post.
Security officials preparing for the Olympics repeatedly have warned that Uighur extremists, who seek to break away from Chinese rule, pose the greatest security threat to the Games. The officials have cited several organizations that they say maintain links to foreign-based Islamist extremist organizations and are training Uighurs to organize bombings and other violence.
In particular, Chinese authorities have identified the East Turkestan Islamic Movement as a terrorist group that poses the greatest risk. The United States also has determined the group to be a terrorist organization, saying it has links with al-Qaeda. Three people executed July 9 at Yengishahar, near Kashgar, were convicted of being East Turkestan Islamic Movement members.
One day earlier, police in Urumqi, the regional capital, killed five Uighurs in a raid on an apartment in a middle-class gated community. Authorities accused them of preparing a holy war against Han Chinese rule.
The Public Security Bureau announced in April that it had broken up two Uighur terrorist cells plotting to kidnap foreigners and bomb hotels during the Olympics. The bureau said 45 people were arrested and accused them of ties to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.
Last week, however, the vice-governor of Xinjiang said that there were "only a small number of sabotage activities" in the province, reports The Guardian.
The authorities have repeatedly accused Uighur Muslim separatists seeking an independent "East Turkestan" of plotting violent attacks and recently claimed to have arrested 82 people in Xinjiang this year in connection with terrorism.
Human rights campaigners and Uighur exiles argue that the government has exaggerated the threat of violence, and deliberately blurred the distinction between extremism, pro-independence arguments and cultural expression to justify repression in the region.
The Los Angeles Times reports that experts on Uighurs say extremist groups in Xinjiang appeared to be in decline and that most violent incidents in Kashgar and other hot spots are more likely to result from personal grudges or overzealous security crackdowns, rather than terrorism.
John Wang, professor of criminal justice at Cal State Long Beach, said the radical Uighur separatist wing known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement saw its heyday between 1993 and 1997, when it mounted about 200 bombings and other attacks.
Since 2001, the movement has focused more on activities outside China, including Afghanistan. But with the Olympics, some rebels may be turning their attention back to their homeland....
He emphasized that the East Turkestan movement was not a single group, but a collection of 19 loosely banded organizations.
Last month, another extremist group claimed responsibility for deadly explosions on buses in Shanghai and Yunnan, the BBC reports. Calling itself the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), it released a video that a Washington-based monitoring company said was titled "Our Blessed Jihad in Yunnan." However, China has denied that these explosions were terrorist-related and has not linked them to the Olympics.
Al Jazeera reports that TIP threatened to target the Olympics in the video, according to IntelCenter, an American monitoring group. A Shanghai government official dismissed the group's reported claim, saying the recent bus blasts were "indeed deliberate but had nothing to do with terrorist acts."
The Christian Science Monitor reports that Uighurs are China's fifth-largest ethnic minority, with 8 million people concentrated in Xinjiang Province. Many are unhappy over strict controls by Beijing on public displays of their language and faith as well as the growing domination of Han Chinese in business and local government.
Uighurs are resentful at the way Han Chinese monopolize the best jobs and the top political posts, even though Xinjiang is theoretically an autonomous province. Han residents routinely complain that Uighurs are dirty, lazy, and dishonest.