China's Uighurs Wary, Worried After Attack

By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 6, 2008

KASHGAR, China, Aug. 5 -- Fear and caution pervaded the warren of mud-brick homes and shops of this northwestern city's ethnic Uighur neighborhood Tuesday, a day after an attack on a paramilitary police unit that killed 16 officers. Residents said they feared they would be blamed because the two assailants arrested at the scene were identified by police as Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority already subject to strict security measures.

Black-clad police officers carrying short clubs patrolled the Uighur neighborhood, entering several houses to check occupants' names against a government list of registered residents. Police presence at highway checkpoints and throughout the city was beefed up.

"Everyone is so scared," one woman said. "They don't want to open their mouths."

Local officials labeled the attack a terrorist act, timed to occur just ahead of the opening of the Summer Olympics in Beijing, 2,000 miles to the east. Shi Dagang, Kashgar's Communist Party secretary, said at a news conference that the two men had left wills saying that defending their religion was more precious than life and that they would launch a holy war against the Chinese.

Exile groups say hundreds of Uighurs have been detained in recent months while thousands of paramilitary forces have been dispatched to the Xinjiang region in response to what local officials have said are terrorist threats from extremist Uighurs who want to form an independent state. Some foreign experts say China has exaggerated the threat to justify its crackdown on Uighur dissent.

The heavy police and military presence gave this tourist city an uneasy edge Tuesday. When a taxi sideswiped another on a busy downtown street, the drivers, both Uighurs, began shouting at each other through their open windows. But when they slowed to pull off the road to continue their argument, a police van drove by. Both drivers immediately stopped shouting and eased back into traffic. "I'm not going to stop if the police are here," one said.

No Uighur interviewed would agree to be quoted by name, including those who expressed gratitude toward the Chinese and no sympathy with those pressing for independence.

"I prefer we stay with China. They can protect us. Without them, Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan can bully us," a 21-year-old man said.

A man chatting with foreign visitors inside Id Kah mosque, the largest in China, pointed out that the wall radiators and thick carpeting had been paid for with Chinese government funds.

A devout Muslim who prays five times a day, the man recalled that when he was in school, his Chinese teachers refused to let him go to the mosque. "The teachers told us we had no time to pray," he said. "We had to concentrate on our examinations."

Still, he shrugged off the idea that his religion was being suppressed. "I can practice my religion the way I want," he said.

Tensions between Uighurs and the Chinese have existed for centuries in Kashgar, once an oasis on the fabled Silk Road. A series of bombings in the region in the 1990s sparked a crackdown by Chinese security forces. Although tensions continued to simmer, there had been little violence here for a decade, until recently.

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