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China has warned its citizens in Algeria of possible attacks after reports that Al Qaeda has vowed to seek revenge for the deaths of Muslim Uighurs during riots in China's Xinjiang Province earlier this month.
The threat by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the group's branch in North Africa, is the first that the global terror network has made against Chinese interests. Beijing has courted the Islamic world heavily as it seeks superpower status, establishing a network of trade deals and economic investments that may start to look like soft targets.
At least 192 people were killed during race riots between Han Chinese and Uighurs in the city of Urumqi July 5, reports Agence France-Presse. Most of the victims were Han, according to the Chinese authorities.
The threat was first uncovered by British risk consultancy Stirling Assynt, which says AQIM has vowed to attack the 50,000 Chinese working in Algeria, as well as Chinese interests in the rest of North Africa, reports The Daily Telegraph.
Stirling Assynt said that although AQIM was the first arm to target China, "others are likely to follow". It said that it had monitored an increase in internet "chatter" among possible jihadists about the need to "avenge the perceived injustices in Xinjiang."
"Some of these individuals have been actively seeking information on China's interests in the Muslim world which they could use for targeting purposes," Stirling Assynt said, adding that locations included North Africa, Sudan, Pakistan and Yemen.
The warnings are an unwelcome wakeup call to China, which has expanded its influence throughout the developing world by telling local governments that they are "fellows from a developing nation ... and not colonial masters and foes," says The Times of London, adding that Chinese working overseas "felt little vulnerability to kidnappings or terrorist attacks."
That could be about to change. Official numbers are unavailable for the number of Chinese working in Africa but hundreds of thousands are thought to be scattered across the continent. They would make easy targets for extremist militant groups.
Even if al-Qaeda's leaders are in no hurry to expand their fight — already under fierce assault in Pakistan and Afghanistan — affiliate groups may be given a free hand to attack Chinese interests in Africa.
Anger has been growing in the Muslim world at China's handling of the Xinjiang unrest. According to The Jakarta Globe, protests have been held at the Chinese embassy there. Turkey's prime minister has described the situation in Xinjiang as "genocide," The Christian Science Monitor reports.
On Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang appealed to Muslim countries to see China's side of the story and denied that the official response to the unrest would harm its standing in the Islamic world, reports the Associated Press. An editorial in the state-owned China Daily demanded that Turkey retract its remark on genocide.
Al Jazeera reports that Washington-based Uighur exile leader Rebiya Kadeer criticized Al Qaeda for taking advantage "of the Uighur people's legitimate aspirations and the current tragedy in East Turkestan," the name many Uighurs use for the province.