Chinese authorities said Wednesday that they have arrested five Uyghur suspects in connection with a deadly motor vehicle crash at Tiananmen Square, describing it as a "violent terrorist attack" — Beijing's first in recent history.
But some experts challenged the government claim, saying many questions remain unanswered about the crash that occurred on Monday near a huge portrait of Mao Zedong hanging from the walls of the Forbidden City, leaving five dead and 40 others injured, according to police.
The dead comprised the driver of the sports utility vehicle, his wife and mother — who were with him inside the car — and two tourists.
The SUV was driven by Usmen Hasan, police said, suggesting that he, his wife and mother as well as five detained suspects were ethnic Uyghur Muslims from the far western region of Xinjiang.
The exile World Uyghur Congress told RFA that Chinese authorities had rounded up nearly 100 Uyghurs for questioning in connection with the incident as "an excuse" for a crackdown on the minority group, which complains of discrimination and religious controls under Beijing’s rule in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
Beijing police claimed on their official microblog that devices filled with gasoline, knives and a flag with "religious extremist content" written on it were inside the vehicle, which they said had plowed into pedestrians in the square and exploded in a "carefully planned, organized and premeditated" suicide attack.
The trio allegedly "ignited the gasoline inside the car," the police said, adding that it had a license plate from Xinjiang, home to the Uyghurs who blame the influx of China’s majority Han Chinese into the region for their continued poverty and joblessness.
The five arrested on Monday had confessed to plotting the "attack," police said. Banners calling for a Holy war, long knives and other items were found in at least one suspect's residence, according to the authorities.
At least one of those held was from Xinjiang's Turpan prefecture's Lukchun (Lukqun, in Chinese) township, where deadly clashes in June left at least 46 dead, based on accounts by local officials and residents.
Wong Dong, a Macau-based Chinese military analyst, cast doubt over Beijing's claim of a terrorist attack.
If there was such an attack, he said, it should involve explosives and not gasoline.
Based on photos of the crash available on the Internet, Wong expressed surprise that in a "sensitive area" such as Tiananmen Square, where there is believed to be heavy police presence, no one appeared to have rushed to put out the fire quickly.
"There has to be more evidence to back up claims that it is a planned terrorist attack," he told RFA.
"Three people [who were in the vehicle] did this kind of thing is quite abnormal," he said. "It is weird.”
Chinese authorities usually blame outbreaks of violence in Xinjiang on Uyghur "terrorists."
But rights groups and experts say Beijing exaggerates the terrorism threat to take the heat off domestic policies that cause unrest or to justify the authorities' use of force against Uyghurs.
In recent months, dozens of Uyghurs accused of terrorism have been shot dead in lightning raids in Xinjiang.
93 Uyghurs held
A spokesman for the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress said based on information received from various sources, authorities in Beijing had arrested 93 Uyghurs without any legal basis since Monday's incident.
"This incident may become another excuse for the authorities to crack down on the Uyghurs again," Dilxat Raxit, who is based in Sweden, told RFA via email.
A source close to Beijing police told RFA that they were confident that the five suspected Uyghurs picked up on Monday could help in the investigations.
"The police have to reach a conclusion after investigations to let the public know what has happened," the source said. "If you take the wrong people in, how can you [reach the right conclusion]," the source asked.
Tens of thousands of Uyghurs living in Beijing could face greater security controls following the crash.
A local farmer's market inspector said that identification documents of Uyghurs are already being screened. Their personal details are reconfirmed with official records through the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau police.
"We check all ID's and then contact Xinjiang police to see if they have any criminal record,” he said.
The authorities have also clamped down on discussions of the incident on Chinese microblogs. Comments posted by netizens appear to have been deleted by cybercops.
"We do not see any reviews, comments," a Han Chinese man identifying himself as Wang said from Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital. "We cannot make comments on this. All comments sites have been closed. The authorities do not allow comments."
Security has been beefed up in Xinjiang, residents said.
In Kashgar city, security patrols have been intensified since Tuesday, a Han Chinese resident said.
"Since the morning of yesterday, those road blocks withdrawn earlier have been set up again in the downtown area," the resident said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"[All the police] patrol with guns. There are seven or eight policemen at one road block. All vehicles and pedestrians come into and going out of the city are being checked.”
Reported by RFA's Cantonese Service and Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated by Ping Chen and Shiny Li. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.