By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 4, 2008
BEIJING, Aug. 4 -- Two assailants crashed a dump truck into a paramilitary police station in the restive Xinjiang region Monday and tossed out two grenades, killing 16 policemen and wounding 16 others in an apparent terrorist attack, the official New China News Agency reported.
Witnesses said the two explosions boomed out about 8 a.m. in the heart of Kashgar, an oasis town on the route of the ancient Silk Road more than 2,000 miles west of Beijing and near the Chinese borders with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
The region's overwhelmingly Muslim ethnic Uighur population has long chafed under Han Chinese rule. According to Chinese security officials, Uighur extremists have plotted to carry out terrorist strikes during the Beijing Olympics, which start Friday.
Chinese authorities said they had arrested the assailants but did not specify whether they were Uighurs or explain their motives.
The grenade attack was the deadliest single strike against Chinese authorities in some time, although security officials say a spate of separatist bombings in the 1990s killed a number of people.
"I heard two explosions around 8 this morning," said a receptionist in the Seman Hotel, a favorite for tourists visiting Kashgar in search of Silk Road ambiance. "It was only several hundred meters away. The road was blocked [by police] immediately afterward."
The state-run news agency said those killed were patrol troops from the People's Armed Police, a paramilitary force responsible for putting down riots, guarding embassies and safeguarding the border.
The Uighurs, Muslims who speak a Turkic language with no relation to Chinese, have long been the largest part of Xinjiang's population. But increasing numbers of Han Chinese, encouraged to immigrate by the Beijing government, which is trying to develop China's western reaches, have grown to make up about half the region's 20 million people.
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.
But Kuexi Maihesuti, vice president of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, told reporters in a briefing Friday that the terrorist threat should not be exaggerated. "The Xinjiang police have broken up three to four terrorist groups so far this year. That's it," he said. They "didn't have the ability to launch large-scale destructive activities that the enemy forces would have hoped for."
Nevertheless, security in the vast region has become extremely tight. Checkpoints have been set up along Xinjiang's main roads, and airport security has been reinforced.
Correspondent Jill Drew contributed to this report.