By Benjamin Kang Lim | Tue Sep 6, 1:46 AM ET
BEIJING (Reuters) - Separatists in China's far-flung, predominantly Muslim region of Xinjiang are the main terror threat to the country, killing 160 people and wounding 440 over the past decade, officials were quoted on Tuesday as saying.
Beijing keeps a tight grip on northwestern Xinjiang, which shares a border with Afghanistan, Pakistan, three former Soviet republics, Russia and Mongolia and where ethnic Uighur militants have been struggling for decades to set up an independent state called East Turkestan.
In a veiled criticism of the United States, Zhao Yongchen, deputy director of the anti-terrorism bureau of the Ministry of Public Security, said there should be no double standards when dealing with terrorists.
"Any form of terrorism is hazardous to the international community and no country, party or individual group should adopt double standards based on political or other selfish intentions when dealing with terrorism," the official Xinhua news agency quoted Zhao as saying.
The United States has refused to repatriate Uighur detainees held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, concerned they would face persecution if returned to China. They were caught while fighting with the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
Human rights groups have criticised China for using the U.S.-led war on terror as a pretext for an indiscriminate crackdown on Uighurs.
China, which announced last month it was setting up elite police squads in 36 cities to counter the threat of terrorism, has already stepped up security ahead of the 2008 Olympics, acknowledging the Games could make the capital a target.
The East Turkestan movement had close ties to Afghanistan's now-deposed Taliban and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda, Zhao told a panel discussion on international terrorism on Monday.
The three forces of the movement -- terrorists, separatists and religious extremists -- had staged more than 260 "terrorist activities," in Xinjiang and abroad, in the past decade, killing 160 people and wounding 440, Zhao said.
Many members of the movement received military training in terrorist bases in central and south Asia, he said.
Feng Xiguang, spokesman for Xinjiang's Public Security Bureau, vowed to increase China's ability to respond rapidly to terrorist attacks.
"A handful of heinous terrorists are still at large. They are trying hard to organize and expand forces for a new round of attacks," the China Daily quoted Feng as saying.
Extremists carried out terror attacks -- using explosives or poison -- on kindergartens, schools, government offices and the People's Liberation Army, Xinhua news agency said, without giving details.
The Shanghai-based Oriental Morning Post said the East Turkestan Liberation Organization hijacked a Chinese bus in Kyrgyzstan in March 2003 and set it on fire, killing all 21 passengers and the driver.
Kyrgyz police at the time blamed it on armed robbers.
Last month, China accused Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur businesswoman freed in March and exiled to the United States after years in jail, of plotting to sabotage upcoming celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the setting up the Xinjiang Autonomous Region on October 1.
Kadeer was jailed in 1999 on charges of providing state secrets abroad and released on medical parole.