China blast kills seven in restive Xinjiang; Uighur suspected

A China blast killing seven people and injuring 14 on Thursday was allegedly carried out by an ethnic Uighur in Xinjiang Province, a site of past unrest.

This photo taken on Aug. 19 shows the explosion site under an advertisement board on the outskirts of Aksu City, northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. A blast just outside of Aksu City Thursday left at least 7 people dead and 14 others injured. A Uighur suspect is in police custody.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

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A blast killed seven people and injured 14 in China’s simmering western Xinjiang Province on Thursday. Chinese authorities have already arrested a Uighur man who they say drove a three-wheeled vehicle, laden with explosives, into a crowd.

The historically Uighur Muslim area has chafed under state efforts to populate the area with ethnic Han Chinese. Xinjiang was the location of last summer’s riots that killed nearly 200 people and injured about 1,700, most of whom were Han, according to the government.

The suspect was apprehended at the scene and local police will treat the explosion as a criminal case, the People’s Daily Online reports. The explosion took place in the city of Aksu, which is about 400 miles west of the provincial capital of Urumqi and 37 miles from China’s northern border with Kyrgyzstan. (The BBC offers a map of Xinjiang and its neighbors.)

The Uighurs have long resented what they feel is the repressive rule of Beijing and the government's drive to resettle large numbers of Han in the region. Uighurs also chafe at what they see as a clampdown on their religious practices and relegation to largely menial jobs, as The Christian Science Monitor reported during last July’s riots.

Chinese authorities, for their part, fear local separatist sentiments and have compared the Uighurs and their leaders to Tibetans and the Dalai Lama.

Speaking at a news conference before the blast was reported, the provincial governor said that “separatist forces” continued to lurk.

"I believe we face a long and fierce and very complicated struggle. Separatism in Xinjiang has a very long history, it was there in the past, it is still here now and it will continue in the future," Xinjiang Governor Nur Bekri said, according to an Associated Press report out of Urumqi.

Local police also said this June that they had broken a terrorist ring behind deadly attacks in the area and arrested at least 10, the Agence France-Presse reported. Violent attacks also took place in Xinjiang during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, with the Monitor reporting 27 people killed in two incidents.

China in the 1990s began to clamp down on Xinjiang, 1,750 miles from Beijing, after a history of “relatively relaxed” rule in the region.

Both Uighurs and Tibetans formerly enjoyed autonomy, and resent an influx in Chinese migrants and influence over the last half century. Apparently to prevent a breakup similar to that of the multiethnic Soviet Union, some analysts say, Beijing clenched its fist in the early 1990s after years of relatively relaxed rule over ethnic minority areas in western China.

"The root cause of the trouble is the departure from China being a multiethnic empire to being a unitary nation state," argues Nicholas Bequelin, a Xinjiang scholar who works for Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong. "That began the endgame for minorities."

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