BEIJING Chinese police have broken up a "terrorist gang" in the restive western region of Xinjiang, the local government said on Tuesday, arresting five people conspiring to launch attacks with explosives, days after a deadly blast in the capital, Urumqi.
China has announced a year-long anti-terrorism operation in Xinjiang, home to a large Muslim Uighur minority, as well as nationwide, following a series of bloody attacks that Beijing blames on Islamists and separatists from the region.
Monday's arrests in the Hotan area of southern Xinjiang, reported on the local government's news website, come after authorities said they had caught more than 200 suspects in 23 "terror and religious extremist groups" in May.
Police in Hotan arrested five gang members, destroyed two explosive-making sites and seized 1.8 tonnes of explosive raw materials, the Tianshan news website reported.
"The members of the criminal gang ... organized members to go to Urumqi and other areas to gather and buy raw materials for explosives and made explosive devices, and covered up a conspiracy to launch violent terrorist attacks," Tianshan said.
The suspects, who were Uighur judging by their names, also watched and disseminated "violent terrorist and religious extremist videos", it said.
China's leadership has been eager to reassure the public of stability in view of the recent deadly attacks, including a suicide bombing by five people on Thursday that killed 31 at a market in Urumqi.
Tianshan also reported tighter security at schools in Urumqi and at a train station targeted by a bombing late in April that killed a bystander and wounded 79. At least 180 people have been killed in attacks across China in the past year.
Beijing says separatist groups in Xinjiang are seeking to form their own state called East Turkestan, though experts dispute the influence and reach of the most prominent group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).
Exiles and rights groups say the real cause of the unrest is China's repressive policies that put curbs on Islam and the culture of Uighurs, Muslims who speak a Turkic language. Uighurs have long complained of official discrimination in favor of the Han, China's majority ethnic group.
"There is a lack of genuine proof for terrorism accusations facing those Uighurs who are arrested," Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the exiled group the World Uyghur Congress, said in an email. "China is not sincere in its attempts to resolve the issue."
(Reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)