Two of the six Uyghur men who allegedly tried to hijack a plane in China’s troubled northwestern Xinjiang region have died in hospital, state media reported Monday, while exile groups disputed the official version of events.
The two died from injuries sustained in their foiled attack on Friday’s flight from Hotan, the state-run Global Times newspaper reported.
The group attempted to ignite explosives and used a crutch to try to break into the cockpit on the Tianjin Airways flight bound for the regional capital Urumqi before passengers and crew subdued them, the paper said.
The plane returned to the Hotan airport 22 minutes after takeoff and the six were taken into police custody.
Authorities have labeled the incident, which comes ahead of a sensitive anniversary of ethnic violence in the region, a terrorist attack.
“This is a serious case of terrorism by hijacking a plane and the whole world should condemn this kind of … violent act,” Foreign Ministry Spokesman Liu Weimin said at a briefing Monday.
Overseas Uyghur rights groups have disputed claims of the hijacking, saying local sources in Hotan report the plane turned around after a fight broke out between Uyghur and Han Chinese passengers over seating arrangements.
Dolkun Isa, executive committee chairman of the exile World Uyghur Congress (WUC), said Monday that the death of the two suspects raised further suspicions of official claims.
“Authorities captured six people and had a chance to bring them to court to show what really happened in the incident. If China were a country ruled by law, they could have done this, but not doing so was a mistake.”
He accused authorities of blocking information about the incident and added that the secrecy around the case was symptomatic of a political climate that provokes unrest in the region.
“The handling of this incident really shows the reason why other incidents happen,” he said.
The six suspects—Musa Yusup, Ababekri Ibrahim, Ershidinqari Imin, Memeteli Yusup, Yasin Memet, and Omer Imin—are all from the southern city of Kashgar and between 26 and 30 years old, Xinjiang spokeswoman Hou Hanmin said.
The names of the two who died have not been released.
Two other suspects who reportedly injured themselves in the incident are being treated in the hospital, state media reported.
The suspects’ deaths come a year after July 2011 clashes between police and Uyghur protesters in Hotan and a series of knife and bomb attacks in Kashgar.
Four Uyghurs were sentenced to death for the violence that left 32 people dead, and that summer officials launched a two-month “strike hard” campaign, which they said was aimed at “destroying a number of violent terrorist groups and ensuring the region’s stability.”
In recent months, Hotan has also been the scene of house-to-house searches, restrictions on religious clothing, and a raid on a religious school.
The hijacking incident also comes ahead of the anniversary of July 5, 2009 ethnic violence in Urumqi, when tensions between Uyghurs and Han Chinese erupted in riots that left 200 people dead, according to official figures, though exile groups put the figure higher.
China ramped up its anti-terrorism campaign in the resource-rich region after the Urumqi violence, which it blamed on “outside forces.”
Chinese authorities, wary of instability and the threat to the ruling Communist Party's grip on power, often link Uyghurs in Xinjiang to violent separatist groups, including the Al-Qaeda terror network.
But experts familiar with the region have said China has exaggerated the threat from Uyghur “separatists” and used its “war on terror” to take the heat off of domestic policies that cause unrest.
Uyghurs say they are subjected to political control and persecution for seeking meaningful autonomy in their homeland and are denied economic opportunities stemming from Beijing's rapid development of the troubled region.
Reported by RFA’s Uyghur service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.