China Says 'Religious Extremists' Behind Xinjiang Attack

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The scene after the bomb and knife attack near the Urumqi train station in Xinjiang, April 30, 2014.

Chinese authorities on Thursday blamed "religious extremists" for a deadly knife and bomb attack in Xinjiang’s capital as analysts and rights activists said Beijing should re-evaluate its policies in the troubled region in a bid to win more hearts and minds.

The attack on Wednesday left three people dead and 79 wounded, according to state media which said that two of the dead had detonated bombs they were carrying and the other fatality was an "innocent citizen.”

The government of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) identified one of the alleged assailants as Sedirdin Sawut, a 39-year-old man from southern part of the region, home to the country's mostly Muslim Uyghur ethnic minority who complain of oppressive Chinese policies and strict religious controls.  

More than 100 Uyghurs detained

Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress exile group, said more than 100 Uyghurs have been detained in the wake of Wednesday's attacks, though some have now been released.

"Our sources say that some of them were released in the early hours of this morning, so the numbers are unknown, but the authorities have stepped up spot checks and surveillance targeting Uyghurs," Raxit said.

He called on Beijing to end its "repressive" policies targeting Uyghurs.

"The Chinese government ... should end its policy of systematic persecution and repression of Uyghurs, and end its provocative and discriminatory propaganda against Uyghurs," Raxit said in an interview.

Li Xiaobing, director of the Western Pacific Institute at the University of Central Oklahoma, agreed.

"China's spending on domestic security ... can't solve the problem of terrorism at its root, and the blasts in Urumqi are a very good example of this," he said.

Policy backlash

Li said that Beijing had instituted a number of policies over several decades which had contributed to a backlash in the region.

"The Chinese government tried to use migration [by Han Chinese] to Xinjiang as a way of mediating ethnic conflict, and it encouraged educated youth and retired soldiers to move there," he said.

"Another policy was to try to improve Uyghurs' Mandarin ... and increase their level of Chineseness," Li said.

The XUAR government said in a statement on its website that the two attackers had "long been influenced by extremist religious thought and participated in extremist religious activities."

Suicide bombings?

Earlier official media reports suggested that the explosions may have been suicide bombings.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party's People's Daily newspaper said via its official Twitter-like account that "two mobsters set off bombs on their bodies and died."

Urumqi residents said security was extremely tight in the regional capital on Thursday.

"There are police patrols all over the area," an employee who answered the phone at a guesthouse near the southern railway station said.

"Don't call here again," the employee said, before hanging up the phone.

‘Majority of people are good’

A resident surnamed Li who lives near the railway station said she wouldn't allow her life to be affected by worries about further attacks, however.

"I grew up here, and our family home is right next to the railway station," Li said.  "Terrorists are only a small minority. The majority of people are good," she said.

However, a resident surnamed Lu said he felt the official media was overplaying the incident.

"This doesn't make sense, because whether you see it as a bomb attack or a knife attack, it's small beer," he said.

"My personal view is that the authorities want to hype this up to be in the same league as the Kunming incident, but I think this is probably misleading."

In March, a group of attackers state media said were Uyghurs went on a stabbing spree at a railway station in the city of Kunming, capital of southwestern Yunnan province, leaving 29 people dead and 143 injured.

Repeated calls to the Urumqi municipal police external affairs department rang unanswered during office hours on Thursday.

Some in critical condition

An employee who answered the phone at the Xinjiang Autonomous Region Hospital on Urumqi's Huanghe Road confirmed that some of the injured were in critical condition, however.

"I really can't tell you the details ... but right now we have three people seriously ill, that's to say, three people in the intensive care unit," the employee said.

The attack was the latest in a string of violent incidents linked to tensions in Xinjiang, where rights groups and exiles point to heavy-handed rule by authorities, including curbs on Islamic practices and the culture and language of the Uyghur people.

Deadly 2009 ethnic riots in Urumqi left around 200 people dead and sparked an ever-intensifying security crackdown targeting the Uyghur ethnic group.

Official figures show that about 100 people were believed killed in Xinjiang over the last year--many of them Uyghurs accused by the authorities of terrorism and separatism.

Censors go into overdrive

Urumqi-based rights activist Zhang Haitao said police had set up security checkpoints across the city in the wake of Wednesday's attacks, while China's Internet censors had gone into overdrive in a region that was cut off from the Internet for more than a year after the 2009 bloodshed.

"Some online posts were deleted very quickly, and you couldn't get back online or send them again," Zhang said. "It's probably to do with the sensitive keywords."

China's intricate system of blocks, filters and human censorship known collectively as the Great Firewall is able to delete posts based on a database of search terms and words deemed sensitive by the authorities.

He said ordinary people still lacked a full picture of Wednesday's events.

"We still haven't got at the truth of this incident," Zhang said.

Information  blackout similar to that in 2009

He said the information blackout was similar to tactics employed by the Chinese Communist Party in the wake of July 5, 2009 violence in Urumqi.

"All we can get is the bit of information the government will give us," he said.

"Every time something like this happens, they try to cover it up [or] put out brief articles via official media, and then detain anyone passing on information online for 'rumor-mongering'," Zhang said.

He said the government "didn't dare" to give a truthful account of such incidents.

"Terrorist incidents and ethnic or religious matters are extremely sensitive topics for the authorities, and they daren't face up to them directly," he said.

Deputy professor Zhang Lun of the Université de Cergy-Pontoise agreed.

"The lack of clear information is in itself a huge problem in China, which causes a lot of suspicion and mutual hatred within society," he said. "Every issue is linked to this issue."

Meanwhile, Macau-based military affairs analyst Huang Dong said China didn't lack military power when faced with the threat of terrorism, but needed instead to reflect further on its "soft power" in Xinjiang.

"They really need to go away and study in earnest how to win hearts and minds," Huang said. "Military might aside, China hasn't worked on this aspect, whether it be towards Han Chinese or ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet."

"There are many areas in which it performs really badly."

Reported by Yang Fan and Gao Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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