Crew Foiled An Attack On Airliner, China Says

Wang Lequan, the top Communist Party official in the western region of Xinjiang, speaks to reporters in this Sept. 11, 2003, file photo. Police captured and killed alleged terrorists plotting attacks targeting this year's Beijing Olympics, Wang said Sunday.
Wang Lequan, the top Communist Party official in the western region of Xinjiang, speaks to reporters in this Sept. 11, 2003, file photo. Police captured and killed alleged terrorists plotting attacks targeting this year's Beijing Olympics, Wang said Sunday. (Ng Han Guan - Associated Press)
By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 10, 2008

BEIJING, March 9 -- The crew of a Chinese airliner bound for Beijing thwarted an attempt to crash the plane last week, a Chinese government official said Sunday.

The plane had taken off from the region of Xinjiang in northwestern China, where police in January raided an office of an ethnic minority separatist group. Police said at the time that they had killed two suspects and arrested 15.

The Communist Party chief of the region, Wang Lequan, disclosed Sunday that the raid had uncovered materials indicating the planning of an attack on the Beijing Olympics, which begin Aug. 8.

"Their goal was very clear," Wang told reporters on the sidelines of the National People's Congress here.

The official New China News Agency initially labeled the airliner incident an attempted terrorist attack but later quoted an unnamed official from China Southern Airlines as saying, "It's up to the police department to decide."

The China Southern Airlines flight, which departed the regional capital of Urumqi at 10:35 a.m. Friday, was forced to land about two hours after takeoff because "some people were attempting to create an air disaster," Nur Bekri, chairman of the Xinjiang regional government, told reporters at the same gathering at which Wang spoke Sunday afternoon.

Bekri, who gave few details of the incident, said authorities were investigating "who the attackers are, where they are from and what's their background."

"But we can be sure that this was a case intending to create an air crash," he said.

The Reuters news service cited a source with knowledge of the incident as saying "inflammable material" was found in the plane's toilet and that at least two passengers on Flight CZ6901 had been taken into custody.

The flight crew reported the incident to the control tower and the plane was told to land in Lanzhou, a city in Gansu province, China's government news agency said. The passengers and crew were unharmed and arrived in Beijing on Saturday morning, according to the news agency.

Chinese officials said last year that terrorism was their top security concern for the Summer Olympics.

Although China has not been a major target of international terrorist groups, a small separatist group that collaborates with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement has staged bombings in China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. The Chinese and U.S. governments as well as the United Nations have labeled the East Turkestan group a terrorist organization. East Turkestan is another name for Xinjiang.

Uighurs, who are Muslim, make up the largest ethnic group in oil-rich Xinjiang, home to about 20 million people. Human rights activists say the Chinese have repressed the Uighurs, central Asians whose culture and ethnicity are different from China's Han majority.

Wang, the region's Communist Party chief, said security forces would take steps to crush any attempts to spread unrest in the region or to stage attacks. He did not name any specific Olympics venue as a target.

"Those terrorists, saboteurs and secessionists are to be battered resolutely, no matter what ethnic group they are from," Wang said. "We are prepared to strike them when the evil forces are planning their activities."

President Hu Jintao met Saturday with Xinjiang officials attending the National People's Congress and urged them to strengthen unity among the region's ethnic groups.


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