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China foils attempted terror attack on flight

BEIJING (Reuters) - China foiled a bid to cause an air disaster on a passenger jet en route to Beijing and the plane made a safe emergency landing, an official said on Sunday, in what state media called an attempted terrorist attack.

The China Southern flight originated in Urumqi, capital of the restive far western Chinese region of Xinjiang, where militant Uighurs have agitated for an independent “East Turkestan”.

It landed in the northwestern city of Lanzhou on Friday after the crew discovered and foiled the attempt to “cause an air disaster”, Xinjiang Governor Nuer Baikeli told reporters on the sidelines of the annual session of parliament.

“Who the people involved in the incident were, where they were from, what their aim was and what their background was, we are now investigating,” he said.

The official Xinhua news agency said authorities had “foiled a planned terrorist attack”.

“Fortunately our air crew took resolute measures, discovered and put a stop to this action promptly. All the passengers, crew and the aircraft are safe,” the governor said, adding the flight finally arrived in Beijing on Saturday.

A source with knowledge of the incident told Reuters that at least two passengers on flight CZ6901 have been taken into custody for questioning.

The source, who requested anonymity, said inflammable material was found in the plane’s toilet.

Repeated calls to the spokesman’s office of China Southern went unanswered.

“The crew and air police reported the incident to the control tower, and landed in Lanzhou under the instructions of the tower,” Xinhua cited an unnamed aviation official as saying.

Xinhua added that “the suspects were currently in custody in Lanzhou”, without providing other details.

Xinjiang is home to 8 million Muslim Uighurs, many of whom resent the growing presence and economic grip of Han Chinese. The oil-rich region borders Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia.

A senior Chinese official has warned that Uighurs -- a Turkic, largely Islamic people who share linguistic and cultural bonds with Central Asia -- were plotting attacks on the Beijing Olympics.

China has said its police had shot dead two members of a “terrorist gang” and rounded up 15 others in a raid in January in Xinjiang.

Xinjiang’s Communist Party boss Wang Lequan said that the aim of the gang involved in the January incident had been to attack the Olympics.

“Their aim was very clear, which was to damage the Beijing Olympics,” Wang told reporters.

In January 2007, Chinese forces killed 18 people described as terrorists in a gun battle in Xinjiang. One policeman was killed and another wounded in the raid on a training camp in the mountains of the Pamirs plateau in southern Xinjiang.

The Xinjiang governor, himself an ethnic Uighur, said only a “very small number of people” in the region support the separatists.

“They don’t represent the Uighur people,” he added. President Hu Jintao met the Xinjiang delegation on Saturday and called for greater efforts to ensure social stability and ethnic harmony, Xinhua said.

Additional reporting by Benjamin Kang Lim