January 10, 2007
Jane Macartney in Beijing
Uighurs accused of al-Qaeda links
Chinese say they found arms cache
China revealed the depth of its fear of Islamic-linked violence yesterday when police disclosed that they had killed 18 terrorists and captured another 17 after a fierce battle at a secret training camp in a remote northwestern region.
It was the first time that China had announced the discovery of such a camp in its territory. Officials said that they had uncovered links between the activists and international terrorist groups, hinting at connections to al-Qaeda.
The clash in the Pamir mountains on Friday was one of the deadliest for years in the restive Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region, where 8.5 million Muslims make up most of the population. One policeman was killed and a second wounded.
Police said that the camp, in Akto county, was run by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (Etim). It is listed as a terrorist group by the US, at China’s insistence, despite concerns among Beijing-based diplomats over lack of evidence.
Firearms and 22 grenades, plus materials to produce another 1,500 such devices, were seized at the camp, Xinjiang police said. Officials declined to reveal other details, saying that they would release information only as part of a manhunt for fugitives.
State media said that the group may have infiltrated the region with the help of al-Qaeda, but gave no details.
Liu Jianchao, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said: “There is a large amount of evidence, including evidence from this raid, that shows the movement is associated with international terrorist forces, and that it planned, organised and carried out a series of violent, terrorist activities in China.
A resident said that he was not surprised to hear of such a training ground, adding that the Uighur ethnic minority had long been struggling to set up an independent East Turkestan state.
He said: “These mountains are very remote and cold, and no one could set up a camp without outside technological help and financial support. State media said that the suspected militants had even begun mining to help to finance their operations.
Police had found out that key members had arrived in the region, but no details were given of the exact location of the camp or how they were alerted to the suspects’ presence.
More than 50 people were killed in an anti-Chinese uprising in Akto county in 1990. Li Wei, an anti-terrorism researcher at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, said that Beijing needed to reassess the movement’s strength. “It has received external training and financial assistance and it has munitions-smuggling channels.
Western experts and diplomats voiced doubts about the report, saying that it would be unusual for Turkic-speaking Uighurs bent on independence to set up a camp in mountains populated mostly by members of the Tajik minority, which is opposed to a separate state and would be unlikely to give refuge to members of a rival ethnic minority.
China says that Etim is one of the region’s most violent groups and that 1,000 of its members have been trained by al-Qaeda. Western terrorism experts say that the organisation has effectively ceased to exist since its leader, Hasan Mahsum, was shot dead by Pakistani troops in October 2003.
Dru Gladney, a US-based expert on Xinjiang, said: “Most groups in Xinjiang are not motivated by Islam but by sovereignty. It behoves the Chinese Government to provide much more evidence to remove the cloud of doubt that surrounds this incident.
Many Uighurs in Xinjiang are resentful of Chinese rule and feel that they have been left behind economically as better-paying jobs have been taken by the Han, who have moved into the region to seek their fortunes. Few are motivated by religious considerations.
A Western diplomat said: “We may see China now start to crack down on other possible terrorist threats further inland to show it is in control before the 2008 Olympics.
However, Zhao Yongshen, the deputy leader of Xinjiang’s counter-terrorism force, said: “East Turkestan terrorism forces will remain the main terrorist threat facing China.
There are 20 million Muslims in China; 8.5 million live in Xinjiang
23,000 of the 30,000 mosques in China are in Xinjiang
Muslims in China fall into distinct racial groups. The largest, the Hui, are widespread. The next biggest, the Uighurs, are almost entirely in Xinjiang
Islam suffered under Mao. After the Cultural Revolution imams were attacked and tortured
China blames the East Turkestan Islamic Movement for more than 200 terror attacks between 1990 and 2001, causing 160 deaths and 440 injuries
Source: Times archives