KASHGAR, China (Reuters) - The city in China’s restive Xinjiang region where a bomb attack killed 16 police was calm under sweeping security measures on Tuesday, three days before the Beijing Olympics.
Many residents of Kashgar declined to discuss Monday’s grenade blasts, which China called a “suspected terrorist” attack carried out by two young men from the region’s Muslim Uighur community who were detained on the spot.
Police stopped and checked all cars and buses entering the city, 3,000 miles west of Beijing, while riot police ringed the hospital where 16 injured officers were being treated and prevented reporters from talking to family members.
“We are scared that after this things may be even harder for Uighurs,” said a shopper in Kashgar’s main market who gave only his first name, Ibrahim. “There’s already a lot of tension here.”
But a Uighur water seller said not everyone was worried and insisted the popular Silk Road tourist town was still safe.
“It is just because it is so close to the Olympics,” he said. “But don’t worry, this doesn’t affect ordinary people like you and me,” said the man, who declined to give his name.
In the latest step to tighten security before Friday’s Olympics opening ceremony, the Xinjiang transport office announced a regionwide campaign to ensure the security of trucks, buses and transport hubs.
“The whole region’s transport network must establish a dense atmosphere of secure transport and production,” the region’s official news website (http://www.tianshannet.com) reported, citing an “urgent directive” from the government.
Chinese state television reported that the two men who rammed a truck into a group of 70 policeman on a morning jog and then threw home-made bombs at them were a taxi driver and a vegetable seller from Kashgar.
Police found nine homemade explosives, a homemade gun and propaganda materials “promoting jihad”, CCTV said. Police believed the “weapons were similar to those captured by police from an East Turkestan terror camp in January 2007”, it added.
Xinjiang’s Uighurs have been a focus of China’s strict nationwide security in the run-up to the Games. Officials have said militants seeking an independent “East Turkestan” homeland are among the biggest threats.
Kashgar Party Secretary Shi Dagang told reporters 18 “foreign agitators” had been arrested, but that they were linked to earlier unrest, not Monday’s bombings. He did not elaborate.
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the exiled World Uyghur Congress, said the government had rounded up many Uighurs in Kashgar following the attack, some of whom had been beaten.
“We oppose any violence, whether by Uighurs or Chinese,” he said by telephone. “We urge international society to put pressure on China to freely let journalists report from Kashgar and deal with the issue legally and not go after innocent Uighurs.”
TIBET “ANTI-TERROR” DRILL
Many Uighurs resent Chinese controls on religion and the expanding ethnic Han Chinese presence in Xinjiang, a region rich in energy and mineral resources.
The Global Times, a Chinese-language tabloid, quoted a Chinese anti-terrorism expert, Li Wei, as saying: “We can’t rule out that this was the work of a few East Turkestan supporters within the country who have links to external terrorist forces.
“East Turkestan terrorist forces are the most direct and most real terror threat to the Beijing Olympic Games,” Li added.
But Alim Seytoff, general secretary of the Uyghur American Association, a Washington D.C.-based group, said Monday’s attack pointed more to discontent than militancy.
“We don’t believe there are militant groups behind this,” he said, adding that he had few details on the attack. “But we do know the crackdown in Xinjiang, especially ahead of the Olympics, has increased discontent among Uighurs.
In a sign China was taking no chances with security ahead of the Games, the restive mountain region of Tibet held “anti-terror” exercises in recent days, the Tibet Daily reported.
The exercises were held around the railway station and airport of Lhasa, the regional capital, the report said. Lhasa was the epicenter of unrest in Tibet in March that spread across the vast mountain region.
Wang Bingyi, Tibet’s top police and domestic security official, said the exercises were to “win a comprehensive victory in the security battle for the Olympics, and to protect the harmony and stability of Tibetan society”.
China says followers of the exiled Dalai Lama pursuing independence for Tibet are engaged in terrorism, a claim dismissed by the Buddhist leader and many experts.
Additional reporting by Chris Buckley and Ben Blanchard; Writing by Paul Eckert; Editing by Nick Macfie