Authorities in China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region arrested two more Uyghurs Sunday in connection with a bomb attack, residents said, as they enforce a blackout on information about the incident.
The arrests came in the wake of an explosion last week that killed several members of a police auxiliary unit, according to official sources.
A resident of Igerchi village, where the victims of the bomb attack were based, said the two suspects were arrested at around noon on Aug. 22.
Ilyar Tursun, a member of the Public Security Bureau in Xinjiang’s western Aksu city, confirmed the arrests, but deferred to his supervisor when asked for further information about the suspects.
A call to Ilyar Tursun’s cell phone 10 minutes later was answered by his supervisor, who refused to answer questions about the case.
In an interview with a police officer at the nearby Kumbash village police station, where the two suspects are believed to live, a staff member said that he was aware of the arrests but could not confirm the identity of the people in custody.
“They were just captured yesterday ... so we have not been informed of their identity yet,” the staff member said.
“They were hiding in a small tunnel under a bridge located on the Aksu/Kashgar highway, just a few kilometers away from Aksu,” he said.
A police officer at the Aksu city police department, who asked to remain anonymous, said that on Aug. 22 during a telephone conference between the Aksu district police chiefs and the regional police department, a sudden phone call informed the former that city investigators had captured two suspects.
The conference was abruptly canceled and the district chiefs left the office to attend to the arrest scene, the officer said.
One netizen surnamed Li said discussions about the Aug. 19 attack in Aksu city are being deleted from online forums as fast as they are being posted.
"As soon as [netizens] post a discussion on the forums, it will be deleted,” Li said.
Even online postings containing the official version of events have been removed by censors, he said.
“Someone pulled the news off the [official] Tengritagh News website, but it was all deleted by the forum moderators. The forum has been fighting with the moderator all day today over this, saying the news came from Tengritagh, that they posted items from official sites ... so what's to delete?”
“The moderator told the forum participants they were only following orders from higher up, and that they couldn't allow them to discuss this topic.”
The attack in Aksu city, in which a man riding a three-wheeled vehicle threw explosives at a group of uniformed patrolmen, killed seven people and wounded 14, according to wire service reports. The man was taken into custody, while a woman who accompanied him in the attack was killed, China's official Xinhua news service said.
Four of those killed in the attack were patrolmen, members of a unit working in support of the regular police, a senior officer of the Aksu Municipal Police Department said earlier last week, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Local officials reached by telephone said they had no knowledge of the bomb attack.
An employee who answered the phone at the Aksu municipal public security bureau denied the incident had taken place.
“We don’t know about this. It didn’t happen ... We haven’t [heard about this news],” he said.
An official who answered the phone at the Toksu county government office, east of Aksu, denied the bombing existed.
A second official at the same office said he had no details to provide.
"If there is official news on this matter, then it will be issued at a news conference," he said. "The things that we aren't supposed to know about, we don't know about."
Residents of Aksu said police are going from household to household conducting spot searches of Uyghurs following the bombing attack.
"After the explosion happened yesterday, they have been carrying out quite strict checks, but the city isn't totally locked down by security forces," one resident said.
"They are checking the ID cards of anyone trying to enter the city, mostly focusing on Uyghurs. The whole city is in a very tense state right now."
A Uyghur resident of Aksu also said police were conducting checks of Uyghurs’ homes and identification around the city.
"Yesterday they were carrying out checks and searches," he said. "They were carrying out checks of ID cards and temporary residence permits in any areas where Uyghurs lived."
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, said Aksu authorities had stepped up patrols on the main highways leading into the city.
"In particular [they are looking out for] buses arriving from Kashgar, to the south. The authorities in Aksu have detained or arrested more than 100 people,” he said.
“According to the authorities, this is to determine their motives for being in Aksu. Officials also forcibly detained people in [neighboring] Kuche county and Awati county," Raxit added.
He said police at the trade market in Aksu had been using considerable force to carry out the checks.
An Aksu resident said police have reportedly cracked a number of cases recently involving Uyghurs, including those involving the possession of explosives.
"There has been a whole string of smaller cases recently. In Toksu county, there was a case in which people were making explosives. It has already turned into guerilla warfare. It's just like Mao Zedong said. At least the Communist Party is making a huge fuss about it, anyway."
Separately, residents in nearby Kokyar township said a clash occurred three days before the explosion involving police and “separatists.”
Emet Memet, chief of the Aykol village police station, said that “just one” person was killed, but refused to provide further details about the confrontation.
“You have to ask about that from our chiefs…I just heard about it from our political officer when he read an official report at a meeting in our station,” Emet Memet said.
When asked if anyone was harmed in the clash, the chief said one separatist was killed.
“A female was captured and a male was killed,” he said, before referring further questions to his supervisors.
According to a staff member from the Topluq police station, officers have been searching all area hospitals, walk-in clinics, and public spaces in the vicinity of the village.
When asked whether the dragnet was being carried out in order to capture the suspects who fled from the Kokyar clash, the staff member refused to answer.
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) issued a statement Aug. 23 urging China's authorities to lift a blanket ban on reporting by any media, including the official Xinhua News Agency, of the explosion in Aksu on Aug. 19.
"Blanket bans and restricting people's access to the news will allow rumor and hearsay to proliferate," IFJ General Secretary Aidan White said in the statement.
"Distorted information risks inflaming already tense situations, which is partly what happened around the time of the riots in the Uyghur Autonomous Region in 2009," he said.
Millions of Uyghurs—a distinct, Turkic minority who are predominantly Muslim—populate Central Asia and Xinjiang.
Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness despite China's ambitious plans to develop its vast northwestern frontier.
Those frustrations erupted in July 2009 in deadly riots that left nearly 200 people dead, by the Chinese government's tally.
Chinese authorities blame Uyghur separatists for a series of deadly attacks in recent years and accuse one group in particular of maintaining ties to the al-Qaeda terrorist network.
Original reporting by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur service and from RFA’s Mandarin and Cantonese services. Translated by Shohret Tursun and Luisetta Mudie. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.