Two Muslim ethnic Uyghur suspects linked to more than a dozen murders of Han Chinese farmers and businessmen in northwestern China’s troubled Xinjiang region made a bold appearance at a local market as they evade capture despite a two-month manhunt by authorities, according to officials.
Sulaiman Tohti and Abdurehim Abdulla, described by police as among the most fearless of militants and regarded by villagers as folk heroes, were identified last week by the owner of a shop at the Uchturpan (in Chinese, Wushi) county bazaar in Xinjiang’s Aksu prefecture.
They had ventured out of hiding to purchase supplies, local village chief Semet Nuri told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
“The store owner recognized them while they were paying for food and fainted out of fright,” said Nuri, who is the chief of Tohsunyakotan village in Uchturpan’s Achitagh township.
“The suspects left the market before the police arrived to investigate the report by shop owners.”
Nuri said the suspects, who were wearing disguises, had purchased 10 loaves of bread, several bags of tea and a variety of preserved goods, suggesting that the men had been desperate for food and had been forced to come out of hiding to buy supplies.
“After [the suspects were identified at the market] all shop owners in Uchturpan were ordered to request identification from customers who purchase large amounts of bread and tea, and immediately report to police if they see someone suspicious,” he said.
Nuri said no one had expected that the suspects would show up at a popular market when authorities have been organizing local residents to conduct mass search operations for the duo, in addition to deploying SWAT teams and, according to some reports, even drones to mountain ranges in an attempt to root them out.
Tohti and Abdulla are the two remaining suspects on the run from a group of as many as nine Uyghurs sources have said were responsible for the July 9 slaying of six Han Chinese farmers in Uchturpan’s Imamlirim township and a July 12 attack that left five Han businessmen dead after the suspects ambushed their car in Aksu city.
The pair is also believed directly responsible for the killing in Uchturpan’s Aktokay township of a Uyghur judicial official on July 18 and two Han farmers on Aug. 3, as well as the murders in Yakowruk township of a Han brick factory owner on Aug. 3 and the Uyghur chief of Yakowruk’s No. 7 village on Aug. 4.
A resident of Abdulla’s Tohsunyakotan village told RFA that around 100 relatives of the two men had been detained for questioning over the past two months and that both of their homes had been demolished by security forces with bulldozers.
Chinese state media has not reported the five most recent killings so far, possibly to prevent the suspects from fleeing the prefecture or to avoid undue publicity that could deter Han Chinese from taking up jobs in Xinjiang, the homeland of the Turkic-speaking Uyghurs, local residents have said.
Beijing has launched an anti-terror campaign to contain escalating violence blamed on Uyghur separatists in Xinjiang, where many Uyghurs complain of repression by the Chinese authorities and say the influx of majority Han Chinese threatens their culture and livelihood.
Last week’s reported sighting follows another in mid-August when the chairman of Achitagh, Memet Eziz, and chief of the township’s Tohsunyabeshi village, Omer Niyaz, encountered the pair on a stolen motorcycle driving down a road to an area farm and cornered them.
According to Abla Imin, the security chief of Achitagh’s neighboring Tohsuntetir village, the suspects then lashed out with axes at the two officials, who narrowly escaped by shouting out an order to fire on them, despite lacking any back up by security forces.
The false threat was enough to scare the suspects off and send them running into a nearby cornfield, but a search for the duo around two hours later by nearly 1,000 members of the armed forces turned up nothing but a torched motorbike, Imin said.
A retired police officer from Uchturpan told RFA that Tohti and Abdulla were “the most fearless and experienced separatists I have seen in a decade” in the region, noting that both men had lived hard-scrabble lives in recent years which helped them to hone their survival instincts.
The former officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the encounter with the men at the county market had led him to reconsider what tactics they were using to evade capture.
“I thought that they might be hiding somewhere such as the mountains or an area of barren land, but now my assumptions have changed,” he said.
“The tea and supplies they purchased from the food shop indicates that they have safe houses, probably provided by friends in each village.”
The former officer’s suspicions were echoed by a teacher in Uchturpan, who said that the duo had become folk heroes and might have been given safe harbor by the local populace.
“A lot of stories are spreading among the public about the suspects’ heroic deeds—especially among the younger generation—as the mobilization of the armed forces, tanks, drones and mass public raids have not yielded their capture,” said the teacher, who also asked that his name be withheld.
“But it is not an indication of how brave the suspects are, only that they have the support of the majority of the Uyghur people, and even might have been hidden by one of the farmers who took part in one of the raid operations,” he said.
“The government must accept that without gaining the hearts of the people, it will always fail in its [anti-terror campaign].”
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Shohret Hoshur. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.