The U.S. Embassy in Beijing said today there is evidence that an obscure Muslim organization fighting Chinese rule in the western province of Xinjiang has been planning a terrorist strike against the U.S. Embassy in Kyrgyzstan.
The allegation, aimed at the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), marked the first time the United States or China has accused a Uighur rebel group of plotting to attack Americans. Added to other U.S. statements blaming the movement for more than 200 terrorist acts in China, it suggested the Bush administration has accepted the Chinese government's assertion that it is fighting radical Muslim terrorists in Xinjiang.
Human rights groups have accused China of exaggerating the terrorist threat to justify a crackdown on dissent among the region's 8 million Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking ethnic group that practices a moderate form of Islam.
On Monday, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage announced that ETIM had been added to a State Department list of terrorist groups, freezing its assets in the United States and fulfilling a long-standing request by the Chinese government. He said the group "committed acts of violence against unarmed civilians without any regard for who was hurt."
A spokesman for the embassy went further today, accusing ETIM of working with Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network and "planning attacks against U.S. interests abroad, including the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan." He also said ETIM is believed to be responsible for more than 200 acts of terrorism in China, including bombings, assassinations and arson, resulting in at least 162 deaths and 440 injuries. In a report published in January, the Chinese government cited the same statistics, but blamed the incidents on a variety of Uighur separatist groups, not just ETIM.
The State Department declined to comment on the discrepancy or explain how the U.S. government had corroborated the Chinese report.
Uighur exile groups and many Western analysts have challenged Beijing's description of organized terrorist activity in Xinjiang, blaming incidents of violence on scattered individuals and frustration among Uighurs, many of whom support greater autonomy from Chinese rule and complain about limits on religious freedom.
They say Beijing has produced no evidence to support its allegations.
In a January interview with Radio Free Asia's Uighur service, Hasan Mahsum, ETIM's leader and China's most-wanted terrorist, said by satellite phone that his organization's goal is to liberate Xinjiang from Chinese rule, but he denied it engaged in terrorist acts or received help from al Qaeda.
"We don't have any organizational contact or relations with al Qaeda or the Taliban," he said, according to Radio Free Asia. "Maybe some individuals fought alongside them on their own, but we don't have any organizational ties with them. We don't get any financial assistance from them."
The U.S. Embassy spokesman said he had no further details about the alleged plans to attack the embassy in Bishkek, but he said two suspected ETIM members were deported to China from Kyrgyzstan in May for planning terrorist attacks. The Kyrgyz government has identified the men as Mamet Yasyn and Mamet Sadyk and said they were planning attacks on embassies, markets and public gathering places in Bishkek.
Reached by telephone today, Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov said "there were some suspicions that they might have been planning an attack against the U.S. Embassy." He said one suspect was found with a map showing embassies in Bishkek.