HONG KONG—Chinese police have conducted raids on several houses in the restive northwestern region of Xinjiang, possibly looking for weapons, sources in the area have told Radio Free Asia (RFA).
Authorities in Yengiyer township near Gulja (in Chinese, Yili) city raided family homes belonging to Muslim Uyghurs, detaining several people, a local government official told RFA's Uyghur service.
The official at the Gulja municipal Communist Party propaganda department said two raids took place on March 28, one in Yengiyer village, and the other in Almutiyar village.
Police raided the homes of five Uyghur brothers in Yengiyer village, and detained 17 Uyghur youths attending a social group known as a "meshrep" in Almutiyar village, telling the group's organizers that they had engaged in "illegal activities", the official told reporter Shohret Hoshur.
Police in Gulja acknowledged that a secret operation ordered by top officials in Xinjiang had taken place in recent days, but they declined to give details. An officer on duty at the Yengiyer township police bureau said: “Sorry, we cannot tell you about this without getting higher-lever official approval. You can leave your telephone number.”
A duty officer at the Gulja municipal police department said the topic was secret. “We can’t tell you about this—it’s secret,” he said. “Even some of our fellow police officers in our own bureau don’t know about it. You cannot just ask me by phone about these sensitive issues.”
“If you want to know more detail about this, you should ask the [Xinjiang Uyghur] Autonomous Region police bureau. They are the ones who ordered the action, I cannot tell you the operation codename. It is secret,” he added.
A Han Chinese resident of Alamatuya village in Yengiyer township said that at least one house had been searched by police in his neighborhood.
“Because the Uyghurs were causing trouble...They had explosives in their house,” he told RFA’s Mandarin service.
“Maybe someone reported it,” he said, adding that he believed the Uyghurs had been influenced by recent unrest in Tibet and were possibly connected to unrest in Gulja which was brutally suppressed by Chinese security forces in the 1990s.
“Some say more than a dozen were taken away...They were all hiding in the same house...it was the day before yesterday or the day before that,” the man, identified by his surname, Tang, said. “The family belongs to the second unit of the village.”
A second resident of Yengiyer said: “I heard it was terrorists. But I am not very clear about this.”
Many Uyghurs, who twice enjoyed short-lived independence as the state of East Turkestan during the 1930s and 40s, are bitterly opposed to Beijing’s rule in Xinjiang.
Beijing blames Uyghur separatists for sporadic bombings and other violence in the Xinjiang region. But diplomats and foreign experts are skeptical. International rights groups have accused Beijing of using the U.S. “war on terror” to crack down on nonviolent supporters of Uyghur independence.
Overseas rights groups say hundreds, possibly thousands of people were killed in the Gulja unrest of February 1997, in a little-reported crackdown which was similar to the armed suppression of the 1989 student-led protests on Tiananmen Square.
The raids come one week after several hundred ethnic Uyghurs staged protests following the death in custody of a prominent Uyghur businessman and philanthropist.
Witnesses report protests at two locations in Khotan prefecture—in Khotan city March 23-24 and Qaraqash county March 23. Several hundred protesters were taken into custody, numerous sources said, and security remains tight.
Numerous sources said the demonstrations followed the death in custody of a wealthy Uyghur jade trader and philanthropist, Mutallip Hajim, 38. Police returned his body to relatives March 3 after two months in custody, saying he had died in hospital of heart trouble. According to an authoritative source, police instructed the family to bury him immediately and inform no one of his death.
Tibetans in neighboring provinces have staged protests and riots against Chinese rule from March 15, prompting a deadly crackdown and countless arrests.
Both Tibetans and Uyghurs—two of China’s major religious and ethnic minorities—have chafed under Beijing’s rule for the last six decades, and Chinese authorities have faced persistent accusations of repression and abuse. But while exiled Uyghur leaders have voiced support for the Tibetan protesters, the Uyghur unrest appears unrelated.
China has waged a campaign over the last decade against what it says are violent separatists and Islamic extremists who aim to establish an independent state in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which shares a border with Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Mongolia.
In March 2008, Chinese authorities announced that they had foiled a plot by Uyghur terrorists targeting the Beijing Olympics. In the early 1990s, Uyghurs in Xinjiang launched large-scale riots, attacking and killing Chinese officials. Chinese authorities alleged that such acts killed 162 people and injured another 440, prompting a harsh crackdown.
After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, Beijing took the position that Uyghur groups were connected with al-Qaeda and that one group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), was a “major component of the terrorist network headed by Osama bin Laden.” The ETIM has denied that charge.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch says authorities in Xinjiang maintain “a multi-tiered system of surveillance, control, and suppression of religious activity aimed at Xinjiang’s Uyghurs...At a more mundane and routine level, many Uyghurs experience harassment in their daily lives.”
“Celebrating religious holidays, studying religious texts, or showing one’s religion through personal appearance are strictly forbidden at state schools. The Chinese government has instituted controls over who can be a cleric, what version of the Koran may be used, where religious gatherings may be held, and what may be said on religious occasions.”
Original reporting in Uyghur by Shohret Hoshur, and in Mandarin by Shen Hua. Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translation by Jia Yuan. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.