URUMQI, China (Reuters) - Seven Chinese military police were killed on Thursday when a member of the Uighur minority rammed them with an explosives-laden vehicle in the Xinjiang border region, long the scene of ethnic tension and violence.
Police arrested a Uighur suspect who drove the motorized three-wheel vehicle into a group of police and paramilitary guards at a highway intersection in Yiganqi township near the city of Aksu, according to a report from a local news conference carried on the People’s Daily website.
It was the first such attack in China since 2008.
In separate incidents during the Olympic Games in Beijing, Uighur attackers killed police at a border checkpoint near Pakistan and rammed a truck into a group of paramilitary police in the southern Xinjiang city of Kashgar.
Fourteen other people were injured in Thursday’s attack, Xinjiang government spokeswoman Hou Hanmin told a group of foreign journalists visiting the regional capital, Urumqi.
She did not say what the motive for the attack might be.
Beijing often blames what it calls violent separatist groups in Xinjiang for attacks on police or other government targets, saying they work with al Qaeda or Central Asian militants to bring about an independent state called East Turkestan.
“Xinjiang’s development will not be affected by a small group of bad people. The overall situation in Xinjiang is good,” Hou told the news conference for foreign reporters on a pre-arranged trip to the region.
“I repeat what our governor said this morning: hostile elements are always there, in the past, present and in the future. They don’t target any particular ethnic group since casualties are also minorities. They are the common enemy of the Xinjiang people.”
Many Uighurs -- a Muslim, Turkic-speaking people native to the region -- chafe under rule from Beijing and restrictions on their language, culture and religion.
They now make up less than half of Xinjiang’s population after decades of immigration by the majority Han from other parts of China.
In July last year, Urumqi was convulsed by deadly ethnic unrest after a protest by Uighurs gave way to street killings and riots that killed at least 197 people, most of them Han Chinese. Han Chinese launched revenge attacks two days later.
Both Uighur and Han residents said tensions have now eased in Urumqi, with Han crediting an increased security presence. Residents pack bars and public squares on warm summer nights while military trucks still patrol Uighur neighborhoods.
Uighur exiles accuse China of whipping up the threat posed by armed separatists to justify harsh crackdowns in Xinjiang.
In June, the government said it had broken up a “terrorist” cell planning attacks in the cities of Kashgar, Hotan and Aksu.
China has promised to plough 110 billion yuan ($16.20 billion) in investment into major projects in oil-and-coal rich Xinjiang, located on China’s Central Asian and Pakistan borders.
Money has been earmarked for the relatively poorer southern part of Xinjiang, heavily populated by Uighurs, to try to soothe income disparities that have contributed to ethnic violence.
“It’s true that for historic and natural development reasons, Xinjiang has seen unbalanced development, especially the three prefectures of Southern Xinjiang,” governor Nur Bekri told reporters earlier in the day.
“We will make southern Xinjiang a focal point.”