China Blames Jeep Fire on Xinjiang 'Terror' Group

uyghur-check-june2013.gif Chinese paramilitary personnel at checkpoint along the road to the riot-hit Uyghur town of Lukchun in Xinjiang, June 28, 2013

Chinese authorities on Friday blamed a militant Islamist group linked to the troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang for the deadly jeep crash and fire on Tiananmen Square which Beijing has termed a "terrorist attack."

Meng Jianzhu, head of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's powerful politics and legal affairs committee, said the little-known East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) was responsible for the attack.

"Behind the instigation is the terrorist group East Turkestan Islamic Movement entrenched in central and west Asian regions," Meng told Hong Kong's Phoenix Television during a regional security summit in Uzbekistan.

Many of China's ethnic minority Uygurs refer to their home region of Xinjiang, which borders Afghanistan, Pakistan and the former Soviet Central Asian republics, as East Turkestan.

Xinjiang, which came under Chinese control following two short-lived East Turkestan Republics in the 1930s and 1940s, has seen a string of violent incidents in recent years as Beijing tightens security measures and extends house-to-house raids targeting Uyghur families.

ETIM seeks independence for the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and is designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the United Nations.

An SUV with three people on board—a driver, his wife, and his mother—tore through crowds of tourists flocking to Tiananmen Gate at the heart of the Chinese capital on Monday before bursting into flames.

The SUV was driven by Usmen Hasan, police said, suggesting that he, his wife and mother—all of whom died in the fire—as well as five suspects who had been arrested following the incident were ethnic Uyghur Muslims from Xinjiang.

Two tourists, one Chinese and one from the Philippines, also died while 40 others were injured in the crash, which residents said had prompted city-wide checks on Uyghurs in Beijing, and tighter security in Xinjiang.

Chinese police said they found flags emblazoned with religious slogans among items in the SUV that caught fire in the incident, and at the temporary lodgings of the five arrested suspects.

Chinese authorities usually blame outbreaks of violence in Xinjiang on Uyghur "terrorists."

In recent months, dozens of Uyghurs accused of terrorism have been shot dead in lightning raids in Xinjiang.

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, who complain they are subject to strict religious controls and are discriminated against by the Chinese authorities.

Evidence sought

Ilham Tohti, an economics professor at Beijing's Central Nationalities University and founder of the Uyghur Online website, said the authorities shouldn't just be concerned with handling the immediate aftermath of the incident.

"The situation shouldn't be labeled before there is a final conclusion," Tohti said in an interview on Thursday. "They should provide evidence."

"For example, if they say ETIM is behind it, then where is ETIM? And what is their relationship with the people [in the SUV], and how did they confirm this relationship?"

He called on the government to provide detailed evidence to back up its claims that the incident constituted a terror attack by ETIM.

Meanwhile, U.S.-based political analyst Cheng Xianong said it was extremely dangerous to label the incident a "terror attack," because such an approach could worsen a backlash against further oppression.

"China has gradually been implementing a new policy in Xinjiang over the last 10 years, forbidding bilingual education, keeping Uyghurs out of the civil service, and, more recently, interfering in their worship and religious activities," Cheng said.

"They have used every method guaranteed to make Uyghurs feel they can't go on any longer, and it's beginning to look like a form of unconscious ethnic cleansing," he said.

"I think they knew what the consquences of such confrontational policies would be when they adopted them," Cheng said. "But they were determined to do it."

Canada-based current affairs commentator Li Tianming said ethnic tensions in Xinjiang went back much further than the past decade, however.

"While [former Communist Party chief] Wang Zhen was in charge of Xinjiang, he killed people left, right and center, leaving behind a huge debt of blood," Li said.

"This news has gradually become widely known with the advent of the Internet, creating a new wave of ethnic revenge and violence."

"If they really want to sort out the ethnic issues in Xinjiang, they should take a leaf out of [late premier] Hu Yaobang's book and make it genuinely autonomous [as he wanted to do]," Li said.

At least one of the five held was from Xinjiang's Turpan prefecture's Lukchun (Lukeqin, in Chinese) township, where deadly clashes in June left at least 46 dead, based on accounts by local officials and residents.

Reported by Tang Qiwei 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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