Pakistan says has eliminated Uighur militants from territory

BEIJING (Reuters) - Pakistan has eliminated all members of the Uighur militant group the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) from its territory, but must remain vigilant to ensure they don’t return, the country’s defense minister said in Beijing on Sunday.

China blames ETIM for carrying out attacks in its far western region of Xinjiang, home to the Muslim Uighur people, although many foreign experts doubt the group’s existence in a cohesive group.

China, Pakistan’s only major ally in the region, has long urged Islamabad to weed out what it says are militants from Xinjiang, who are holed up in a lawless tribal belt, home to a lethal mix of militant groups, including the Taliban and al Qaeda.

“We believe they’re all eliminated,” Pakistan Defense Minister Khawaja Asif told reporters on the sidelines of a security forum. “I think there (were) a small number in tribal areas, they’re all gone or eliminated. There are no more there.”

It is just as much in Pakistan’s interests as China’s to fight Uighur militants, Asif said, denying there was any difference of opinion between Beijing and Islamabad on Pakistan’s efforts to tackle the problem.

“The fight against ETIM is our own fight. It’s not only China’s fight. It’s a joint fight against ETIM, between Pakistan and China, so there is absolutely no difference of opinion on the elimination of ETIM from our tribal areas,” he added

“We have to be vigilant for a long time that this menace, this infection, does not return.”

Some Xinjiang government officials have said they believe Pakistan is not doing enough to prevent Uighurs from traveling there to become radicalized.

Hundreds have died in unrest in Xinjiang in the past few years. Exiles and activists say Chinese controls on the religion and culture of the Uighur people is more a cause of the violence than well-organized militant groups.

China and Pakistan call each other “all-weather friends” and their close ties have been underpinned by long-standing wariness of their common neighbor, India, and a desire to hedge against U.S. influence across the region.

China and Pakistan are getting ready to finalize a deal for China to sell eight submarines to Pakistan, Asif said, in what could be one of China’s largest overseas weapons sales once it is signed.

“It’s moving smoothly, it’s going ahead,” he said. “We are at the final stage. I think it won’t take very long.”

Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Richard Pullin