Pilots from rebel Uighur region grounded over Chinese terror fears

From The Times
August 18, 2008
Jane Macartney in Beijing

The three Uighur airline pilots in the Chinese aviation fleet have been ordered from their cockpits by authorities anxious to maintain security during the Olympic Games.

Their removal, along with the switching of Uighur cabin staff to flights outside the troubled Xinjiang province, follows a renewal of violence by Uighur separatists.

Turkic-speaking Uighurs in Xinjiang province who are eager to found a separate state of East Turkistan have launched a series of attacks apparently timed to coincide with the Beijing Games.

On August 4, 16 police were killed in the ancient Silk Road town of Kashgar when two Uighurs drove a truck into their group before attacking them with home-made bombs and knives. Just six days later a group of about 15 Uighurs attacked several government buildings in Kuqa, on the edge of the Taklamakan desert.

Police returned fire, killing eight of the attackers, while two committed suicide. A security guard and a civilian were killed by the attackers. Last week a group of people armed with knives fatally stabbed three guards at one of the many road checkpoints that have been set up in Xinjiang to maintain security.

The order to ground the three male pilots came after an incident in March when a 19-year-old Uighur woman from Kuqa was able to slip through the less rigorous security checks for business-class travellers at the airport in Urumqi, the capital. She was then seen acting strangely aboard the flight, state media said.

The woman was found locked in an aircraft toilet with several cans filled with petrol. The plane, en route to Beijing, made an emergency landing in the northwestern city of Lanzhou. Officials described the incident as an attempted terrorist attack.

A Chinese source with aviation contacts said yesterday: “There are only three pilots in the Chinese aviation fleet who are Uighurs.

“They were all told that they would not be allowed to fly, at least until after the Olympics.”

Cabin staff who belong to the Uighur ethnic minority have also been removed from working on flights operating around Xinjiang, the source said. However, they are allowed to work on airliners serving other destinations around China.

Recent travellers to Xinjiang said they noticed only flight attendants of the ethnic Han minority working on flights in the region, but the report could not be officially confirmed. China, which once recruited its airline pilots from the air force, is now facing a shortage as it keeps pace with a rapidly growing economy and an expanding fleet of aircraft.

Latest figures from the General Administration of Civil Aviation, in 2006, showed China has 11,000 pilots and first officers working in 800 airliners.

By 2010 China’s fleet will grow to 1,250, requiring at least 6,500 more cockpit crew.