By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 5, 2008
KASHGAR, China, Aug. 5 -- Authorities said they were treating a brazen attack that left 16 police officers dead and 16 others injured Monday as a terrorist strike, China's state-run media reported. The two men arrested after the attack were members of the ethnic Uighur minority, which has long chafed under Beijing's control of northwestern China.
The incident followed the release of a video last month in which a group calling itself the Turkestan Islamic Party threatened attacks during the Olympic Games, which will open in Beijing on Friday. Although experts believed the group's claims were inflated, it has asserted responsibility for recent bombings around China.
The group has said it wants to draw attention to its demands to establish an independent state and end Chinese repression of Uighurs -- Muslims who speak a Turkic language and have made this area 2,000 miles west of Beijing their home for centuries.
In Beijing, an Olympic spokesman said Monday that the Chinese government has taken every precaution to prevent an attack at the Games. "We have strengthened security in all Olympic venues and in the Olympic village. We are well prepared to deal with any kind of threat," Sun Weide, a spokesman for the Beijing Olympics organizing committee, told reporters at a news conference.
Details of the attack remained unclear into early Tuesday morning. Local police refused to comment at the scene, and official reports in state-run media Monday differed throughout the day.
According to the latest account from the New China News Agency, an assailant rammed a dump truck into a crowd of 70 border police officers around 8 a.m. Monday as they were jogging past the Yiquan Hotel, near their barracks, during a regular morning exercise. After the truck slammed into an electrical pole, the agency said, the assailant leapt out and attempted to throw a homemade explosive device at wounded policemen. The device detonated early, the agency said, blowing off the assailant's arm.
A second assailant threw an explosive device near the gate of the police station, a few hundred yards down the street from the hotel. It was unclear whether the second man was in the truck. Both men, ages 28 and 33, were arrested at the scene, police said. Their names were not released.
Police said they found 10 homemade explosives, a homemade handgun and four knives in the vehicle, the news agency reported. Some reports said at least one of the men tried to slash the officers with knives.
On Monday evening, the street where the attack occurred was reopened. Residents walked by to look at the shuttered hotel; a tarp hung over its entrance and a half-dozen of its blue-tinted windows were blown out. Police patrolled the area and briefly detained journalists attempting to photograph the site or interview onlookers. The ground under the damaged electrical pole in front of the hotel was dug up, exposing tree roots, but there were no other visible signs of the attack.
Kashgar is a tourist town that was once an oasis on the ancient Silk Road along the westernmost edge of China, near the border with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Relations between the Uighurs and Han Chinese have long been tense. They have deteriorated in recent years as Han Chinese migrants have flooded the area as part of China's strategy to develop its western hinterlands. Uighurs once dominated the area, called the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, but now the population is evenly split.
"Fights between Uighurs and Han Chinese happen about every day on different kinds of scale," said a Chinese shopkeeper, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
"We feel very frightened," Gu Zainu, a 22-year-old Uighur woman who works in a downtown Kashgar pharmacy, said of Monday's attack. "At first, rumors said there was a bombing nearby."
Gu said that since March, there have been more police officers in the city.
"I heard this was done by Uighurs," she said. "I feel uncomfortable. I also hate them, although we are both from the same ethnicity."
The Chinese government has said a violent Uighur separatist group that calls itself the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) is the greatest threat to security at the Olympic Games. Some terrorism specialists suggest that although China routinely blames the group and uses its existence to carry out oppressive policies against all Uighurs, the separatist movement is divided into a number of groups with similar goals.
This year, Xinjiang officials say, they have arrested 82 people and broken up five terrorist cells planning attacks related to the Games. Three Uighurs identified as members of the ETIM were executed last month. Chinese officials said that the group maintains links to foreign-based extremist Islamist organizations that are training Uighurs to organize bombings.
Terrorism experts note that although Monday's attack was the most violent here in recent memory, it did not bear the earmarks of a sophisticated organization.
The Turkistan Islamic Party, thought to be a different name for the ETIM, said last month that it was behind two bus blasts in Kunming, the capital of southwest China's Yunnan province, as well as three other bombings.
Researcher Liu Songjie in Kashgar and correspondent Edward Cody and researcher Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.