Report: 16 police killed in China border attack

August 4, 2008 6:34:19 PM PDT
In an audacious and deadly attack just days ahead of the Beijing Olympics, two men from a mainly Muslim ethnic group rammed a truck and hurled explosives at jogging policemen in China's restive far west Monday, killing 16. The attack in a city near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border brought an immediate response from China's Olympic organizers, who pronounced security precautions ready to ensure safety in Beijing and other Olympic venues when the games open Friday. Yet the timing so close to opening day heightened the attack's shock value and bore the hallmarks of local Muslim militants, said Li Wei, a counterterrorism expert affiliated with the government. It also came as athletes, Olympic dignitaries and journalists poured into Beijing for an Olympics that some Chinese want to leverage to get the government to address festering grievances. Migrant workers cheated on pay for construction, homeowners angry about pollution and other disgruntled residents believe the government would help them rather than see the Olympics disrupted. On Monday, about 20 people evicted from their homes for urban renewal projects staged a small demonstration a few blocks from Tiananmen Square only to be surrounded by police. "We don't oppose the Olympics. But it's wrong for them to demolish our house. It's wrong," said Liu Fumei, who scuffled with women from the government-backed neighborhood committee who pulled Liu and the other protesters away. The risk for the communist government is that the ferment could disrupt an Olympics it spent more than $40 billion to make a perfect showcase for China. "Pursuing peace, progress, coexistence in harmony and harmonious development" was how Chinese President Hu Jintao described the Chinese people's Olympic hopes to foreign media last week. Monday's attack in Xinjiang also underscored that with so much security focused on Beijing, areas far from game venues make tempting targets that could also diminish China's Olympic moment. "We've made preparations for all possible threats," Beijing Olympic organizing committee spokesman Sun Weide told reporters when asked about the Xinjiang attack. "We believe, with the support of the government, with the help of the international community, we have the confidence and the ability to host a safe and secure Olympic Games." Security was tight at the airport in Xinjiang's capital Urumqi on Tuesday morning. Passengers waited in long lines to get through the security checkpoint and authorities were checking luggage for any suspicious materials. Xinjiang has for decades seen a sporadically violent rebellion by a local Muslim Turkic ethnic group known as Uighurs against Chinese rule. An extremist Uighur group believed to be based across the mountainous border in Pakistan's tribal frontier threatened in a video tape last month to target the Olympics. And military and police commanders have said Uighurs fighting for what they call an independent East Turkistan pose the biggest threat to the games. In Monday's attack, two Uighur men rammed a dump truck into 70 border patrol paramilitary police as they passed the Yiquan Hotel during a routine early morning jog in the city of Kashgar, the Xinhua News Agency reported. After the truck hit an electrical pole, the pair jumped out, ignited the homemade explosives and "hacked the policemen with knives," Xinhua said. The assailants, ages 28 and 33, were arrested, the report said. There were no civilian casualties as few people were on the streets so early in the day, state media and witnesses said. Though Xinhua put the time of the attack at 8 a.m., China officially has one time zone, geared toward Beijing, 2,200 miles to the east.

Fourteen officers were killed on the spot and two others died on the way to the hospital, while another 16 officers were wounded, Xinhua said.

Witnesses said police immediately closed off streets. The Nationalities Hospital, down the street from the explosion, was sealed off and people were ordered to stay inside, said a man answering phones at the hospital duty office. By early afternoon, unarmed uniformed police patrolled the area, stopping a few people to inspect their bags.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Gonzales Gallegos condemned the attack, saying the United States was "saddened at the loss of life and injuries caused by the attack and extend our condolences to the victims and their families."

U.S.-based Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer urged Beijing to "refrain from using this incident to crack down further upon peaceful Uighurs," according to a statement from the Uighur American Association. Kadeer was recently among a group of prominent Chinese activists who met U.S. President George W. Bush.

"We condemn all acts of violence. The Uyghur people do not support acts that engender bloodshed," she was quoted as saying.

Monday's attack was all the more surprising because it follows years of intensive security measures in Xinjiang. A wave of violence in the 1990s mainly targeted police, officials and Uighurs seen as collaborators. Separatists also staged nearly simultaneous explosions on three public buses in the provincial capital of Urumqi.

In response, the government stationed more paramilitary units in the region and shut unregistered mosques and religious schools seen as hotbeds of anti-government extremism.

Uighurs, however, complain that restrictions on religious practice ? students are not allowed to go to mosques, for example ? and a high police presence has further alienated people who already felt displaced by an influx of Chinese migrants they feel are taking the best jobs.

"In practice, Uighurs have lost all political rights," Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Germany-based pro-independence World Uighur Congress, said in an e-mail. "Especially in the vast countryside heavily populated by Uighurs, the Chinese government has rolled out a political movement without end or reason that is unbearable to the Uighur peasantry. The entire Uighur people live in a blanket state of fear."

For the government, the security clampdown has largely succeeded in suppressing attacks, allowing security forces to disrupt plots before they are carried out, sometimes in violent raids. Li, the counterterrorism expert, said one raid recently broke up a terrorist cell in Xi'an, a city in central China. Police also shot and killed five people in an alleged cell in Urumqi last month.

Initial reports indicated Monday's attack was carried out by separatists based in Xinjiang and not Uighurs from across the border, some of whom have received training from al-Qaida and Pakistan's Taliban, said Li, who works at China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, a think-tank with ties to the government's main spy agency.

"This time they actually managed to carry out their plan, but it will not affect the Olympics greatly," said Li. "The threat from East Turkestan forces exist, but their capabilities are limited."