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29-07-06, 22:13
Jan 28, 2005

Explosive situation in Xinjiang
By B Raman

The China Daily reported on January 22 that 13 persons were killed and 18 others injured in two separate explosions in China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, coinciding with the Eid-al-Adha religious festival.

In the first incident, nine passengers were killed instantaneously and two others later died after an explosion on January 20 in a minibus carrying 18 people at the Dushanzi overpass in Kuitun, in the Yili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture. The place where the explosion took place is about 200 kilometers from the Kazakhstan border. Most of the victims were reportedly ethnic minorities (Uighurs?) and not Han Chinese.

Liu Yaohua, head of the Public Security Department of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, was quoted as saying that 19 people were on the bus. A man and a woman got off during the trip, while a man in his 40s, carrying a black canvas bag, got on when the bus approached the overpass. The blast took place at the right rear of the bus.

The official Xinhua news agency reported that "explosive material" was responsible for the blast. It quoted Liu Yaohua as saying it was difficult to determine what explosive material was used, and how it was detonated. He added, however, that it was a "man-made" explosion, without saying whether it was caused by an improvised explosive device assembled with a criminal intent.

While blasts caused by the careless handling of industrial explosives and other hazardous materials are not unusual in China, because of poor enforcement of laws relating to the purchase, possession, storage and transport of industrial explosives, the French news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP) quoted unnamed Chinese officials as saying they could not rule out the possibility that the blast is linked to the separatist movement of the Muslim Uighurs, the non-Han natives of the province, some of whom have been fighting for an independent state for the Uighurs of Xinjiang and the adjoining Central Asian Republics, to be called East Turkestan.

While Chinese officials generally do not cover up news of such explosions, they rarely release to the media the results of their own inquiries into the incidents. As a result, it is often difficult for the outside world to know definitively what and who caused such explosions.

Another explosion was reported the same evening from the downtown area in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, killing two and injuring 11. Huang Gongyi, an official with the Urumqi government, claimed that this incident was caused by natural-gas leakage. The explosion reportedly took place at a pressure-adjusting station of a local gas-pipeline firm. The local authorities are projecting this incident as purely accidental.

Sixty persons were killed and 200 others injured and more than 20 motor vehicles were severely damaged on September 8, 2000, after an explosion in a military vehicle traveling on the Xishan Road in the western suburbs of Urumqi. The Chinese authorities did not attribute the explosion to any criminal intent and said it was purely an accidental blast due to the careless transport of old military explosives, which were being taken away to be destroyed.

Though there was no evidence to throw doubt on the Chinese claim that it was purely an accidental explosion, certain unusual circumstances surrounding it led to considerable speculation. The explosion occurred when the vehicle was caught in a traffic jam. It was not involved in any collision with another vehicle. On the day of the explosion, Chinese premier Zhu Rongji was touring the region. While it was not clear whether he was in Urumqi at the time of the explosion, he visited the injured in an Urumqi hospital the next day. Robert Rubin, former US treasury secretary and a senior official of Citigroup, was on a visit to Urumqi at the time of the explosion. He called on Zhu the next day and some American journalists reported that during the meeting Zhu made no reference to the blast.

Erkin Ekrem, the leader of a pro-separatist group, was quoted by AFP as saying, "This accident is very strange." He wondered what such a large quantity of explosives was doing in Urumqi. The local authorities immediately set up a special task force to investigate the cause of the explosion. The central government sent a team of investigators led by the vice minister of public security, Tian Qiyu, to Xinjiang. No separatist group claimed responsibility for the explosion. After an explosion in a bus in Beijing in 1997 that resulted in some casualties, a Uighur separatist group had claimed responsibility for it, but the Chinese authorities dismissed the claim and projected it as an accident.

In a report carried on November 30, 2000, the South China Morning Post alleged that Yang Xiaofeng, the head of the Lanzhou Daily news center, was demoted, and two journalists of the Lanzhou Evening News were dismissed by the authorities for violating "news discipline" by reporting independently on the explosion instead of carrying the version put out by Xinhua as they were expected to. Though their reports too did not mention any possible criminal intent, the sensitivity of the Chinese authorities to any independent investigative reporting of the explosion raised eyebrows.

Government investigators were subsequently quoted as saying that the military vehicle had violated regulations by carrying what were described as mixed explosives and that the bumpy road caused the explosion. This was at variance with witness accounts that the explosion occurred when the vehicle was stationary because of a traffic jam. Two senior military officers were reportedly dismissed and about 10 others punished for alleged negligence.

According to the South China Morning Post, the Lanzhou Daily and the Lanzhou Evening News had sent reporters to the site and covered the explosion with photos and first-hand reports even before Xinhua had released the officially authorized account. Their reports were picked up by many online news sites and sections of the international media.

After the September 11, 2001, terrorist strikes in the United States, the authorities of Xinjiang mounted a publicity campaign to project the Uighur terrorist groups as forming part of the international jihadi terrorist movement inspired by Osama bin Laden and as having links with al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. For the first time, they admitted a number of terrorist incidents, which had taken place in the region during the 1990s and many that they had not publicly admitted before.

A press statement titled "Terrorist Activities Perpetrated by Eastern Turkestan Organizations and Their Links with Osama bin Laden and the Taliban" issued by the regional authorities on November 29, 2001, gave the following details of their activities:
I. Terrorist activities by "Eastern Turkestan" elements in and outside the Chinese territory: The "Eastern Turkestan" force has a total of over 40 organizations. They have engaged themselves in terrorist violence to varying degrees, both overtly and covertly. Among these organizations, eight openly advocate violence in their political platforms. They are: "Eastern Turkestan Islamic Resistance Movement" in Turkey; "Eastern Turkestan Liberation Organization", "Eastern Turkestan International Committee", "United Committee of Uighurs' Organizations" in Central Asia, and "Central Asian Uygur Hezbollah" in Kazakhstan; "Turkestan Party" in Pakistan; "Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement" in Afghanistan; and "Eastern Turkestan Youth League" in Switzerland.

II. Incidents of terrorist violence perpetrated by "Eastern Turkestan" elements over the past 10 years in the Chinese territory mainly include:
On April 5, 1990, they killed and injured more than 100 civilians and soldiers in Brain Township of Kizilsu Kirgiz Autonomous Prefecture.
On February 5, 1991, the "Islamic Reformist Party" masterminded a bus explosion in Urumqi, killing and injuring over 20 people.
Between June and September 1993, the "Eastern Turkestan Democratic Islamic Party" carried out a series of bombings in southern Xinjiang, which led to more deaths and injuries.
On July 15, 1996, the "Eastern Turkestan Islamic Justice Party" engineered a prison rebellion in Xayar County, killing 15 people and a riot in Yining on February 5, 1997, which resulted in over 300 casualties.
On February 25, 1997, the "Eastern Turkestan National Solidarity Union" staged a horrendous bomb explosion incident in Urumqi which involved nearly 100 casualties, and in early 1998 the same group was responsible for 25 poisoning cases in southern Xinjiang, where over 40 people fell victim and four died.
In January 2001, Akbelbek Timur, an "Eastern Turkestan" terrorist who is now in custody, bought explosives in Kazakhstan and smuggled them into Xinjiang for attempted terrorist activities.

III. Incidents of terrorist violence committed by "Eastern Turkestan" elements in recent years outside China mainly include:
In February 1997, "Eastern Turkestan" terrorists opened fire on the Chinese Embassy in Ankara, attacked the Chinese Consulate General in Istanbul and burned Chinese national flags.
On March 5, 1998, terrorists of the "Eastern Turkestan National Center" carried out bomb attacks on the Chinese Consulate General in Istanbul.
In November 1999 and August 2000, the "Eastern Turkestan" elements were involved in an armed insurgency and invasion led by the "Uzbek Islamic Movement" into the southern regions of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
In May 2000, terrorists of the "Uygur Liberation Organization" set fire to the Chinese Commodities Market in Bishkek and murdered one person from China's Xinjiang, who was sent to Kyrgyzstan to investigate the case.
On September 28, 2000, terrorists under the command of the "Uygur Liberation Organization" killed two Kazkh policemen in Alma-Ata.
In May 2001, terrorists of the "Uighur Youth Association of Kazakhstan" robbed in Alma-Ata a bank vehicle that carried banknotes.

IV. The relationship between the "Eastern Turkestan" terrorists and the Taliban and Osama bin Laden has provided the "Eastern Turkestan" terrorist organizations with equipment and funds and trained their personnel. The basic facts are as follows:
The "Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement" (ETIM) is a major component of the terrorist network headed by bin Laden. Hasan Mahsum, the ETIM ringleader, used to hide in Kabul and had an Afghan passport issued by the Taliban. Bin Laden asked the ETIM to stir up trouble in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and then stage an organized infiltration into Xinjiang. The "Turkestan Army" under the ETIM fought along with the Taliban in Afghanistan. This "army" has a special "China Battalion" with about 320 terrorists from Xinjiang. The battalion is under the direct command of Hasan Mahsum's deputy Kabar.
The armed elements of the ETIM received training in terrorist training camps in Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kunduz, Vardak, Kandahar, Herat, Shibarghan and other places. Some of these camps were directly under the control of bin Laden and the Taliban and some were military bases of the "Uzbek Islamic Movement". The "Central Asian Uighur Hezbollah" is said to have a 1,000-strong armed force and had training bases in Afghanistan. The "Uighur National Army" received battle training in July and August 1999 in the Taliban bases in Afghanistan. They practiced firing with conventional weapons with live ammunition and learned the Taliban guerrilla-warfare tactics and terrorist skills such as assassination, explosion and poisoning. After their training, the "Eastern Turkestan" elements fought in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Uzbekistan, or returned to Xinjiang for terrorist and violent activities.
In early 1999, bin Laden met with Hasan Mahsum and offered him financial assistance. In 2000, bin Laden and the Taliban provided the ETIM with US$300,000 and undertook to cover all the expenses of the ETIM in 2001. The activities of the "Central Asian Uighur Hezbollah" are also partially financed by bin Laden.
The People's Daily of December 11, 2001, gave the following details of the activities of the terrorists in Xinjiang:
Explosions. On February 5, 1992, the terrorists set off a chain of explosions in public buses, video-show halls and some residential buildings, killing three persons and injuring 20 others. In 1993, the terrorists staged 10 explosions [and] committed four assassinations or attempted assassinations in Kashi, Kotan and Aksu, killing two persons and injuring 36 others. February 25, 1997, saw five explosions on buses in Urumqi, killing nine persons and injuring 68 others. Between February 22 and March 30, 1998, the terrorists organized six explosions at Yecheng County. Three persons were injured and a natural-gas pipeline was damaged.

Assassinations. The terrorists killed a religious cleric in the Xinhe County on March 22, 1996, and on May 12, 1996, they killed the chief mullah of the Idgah Mosque, who was concurrently vice chairman of the Political Consultative Conference of Xinjiang. On April 9 the same year, five relatives of the former deputy Communist Party secretary of the Alahake Township were killed. This was followed by the assassination of another deputy secretary of the political and judicial commission, a member of the Party Committee of the Bosikehe Township of Zepu County and his son. On January 25, 2000, the terrorists killed seven members of two Han families in the Wushi County. The next day, they killed an elderly Han Chinese couple in Xinhe County.

Arson. A terrorist plan to set fire to 15 commercial establishments on May, 23, 1998, was thwarted.

Poisoning. Between January 30 and February 18, 1998, terrorists were involved in 23 cases of poisoning or attempted poisoning in Kashi in Xinjiang.

Rioting and other incidents. On July 7, 1995, the terrorists attempted to break into the Prefectural Party Committee, the government offices and Public Security Bureau at Kotan and damage the property. On February 5-6, 1997, seven persons were killed and over 200 injured in rioting incited by the terrorists in Yining. More than 20 vehicles were set on fire. On April 5, 1990, the terrorists incited a riot in Baren Township, Aktao County, in which eight members of the local armed police were killed.
On May 27, 2002, the Xinjiang regional authorities held a special press conference to brief the media inter alia on the activities of Uighur terrorists from Pakistani territory. They announced that the Pakistani authorities had arrested Ismail Kadir, an Uighur terrorist who was operating from Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK) in March 2002 and handed him over to the Xinjiang authorities. They described him as the third-highest leader of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.

The Chinese officials also told the press conference that they were asking the US to hand over to them 300 Uighurs who, according to the Chinese, were caught by the Americans during their operations against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and kept in US detention centers in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

Wang Lequan, Xinjiang's Communist Party secretary, told the press conference that Kadir was caught by the Pakistani authorities while meeting underground Muslim groups in POK. He said he did not know other details about the case and added: "China finds it hard to understand and a pity that some people do not believe that our efforts to fight terrorism are part of the international campaign."

Aziz Ait, the deputy director general of the paramilitary People's Armed Police in Xinjiang, claimed that the number of terrorist incidents had declined, but did not give details. He said he could not give an estimate of how many terrorists were still active in the region. He added: "It is not safe to say Xinjiang is completely free of terrorist attacks, so we have to remain on guard."

The Xinjiang officials claimed that they had broken up six groups since the beginning of 2002 while they were plotting attacks. They said: "They were terrorists making guns or weapons and were caught. They didn't have time to commit terrorist attacks before they were caught."

Wang said China believed that more than 1,000 Uighurs were trained by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. About 110 of them came back to China and were captured; about 300 were captured by US forces, about 20 were killed, and about 600 were thought to have escaped to northern Pakistan. He said his information came from "intelligence reports".

Zhang Qiyue, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said China had received no response from Washington to its request that the captured Uighurs be handed over to it for investigation and trial.

The Daily Times, a prestigious daily newspaper of Lahore, reported on January 17, 2004, that in a significant move, the Chinese government had sent to Islamabad a list and profile of terrorists and terrorist organizations of concern to the government of China and had wanted them investigated by Pakistan.

It quoted Pakistani officials as saying: "A list of the first batch of identified Eastern Turkestan terrorist organizations and profiles of terrorists compiled by the Ministry of Public Security, China, on December 15, 2003, have been sent through diplomatic channels to Pakistan, with a request to forward the list to the departments concerned for investigation."

The Chinese concerns were focused largely on two terrorist outfits, the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and the Eastern Turkestan Liberation Organization (ETLO), as well as terrorists belonging to these organizations. It was reported that China had also alleged that these organizations and terrorists were well connected to al-Qaeda and received training as well as funding from it.

It was also reported by the Pakistani media that, according to the Chinese authorities, ETLO is also known as the Eastern Turkestan National Party. It is said to be working for the founding of an Eastern Turkestan state in Xinjiang through violence and terror. Its headquarters are in Istanbul. The founder of the organization is Muhametemin Hazret and its main leaders include Kanat, Dolqun Isa and Ubul Kasimund.

According to the Pakistani media, the foreign as well as the interior ministers of the two countries had met in 2002 and discussed counter-terrorism issues. In 2003, when Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf visited China, an extradition treaty was signed between the two countries and China took up the issue of the activities of the Uighur terrorist groups from Pakistani territory. Musharraf was subsequently reported to have told a group of senior Pakistani editors that he was surprised by the strong language used by the Chinese while referring to the activities of Uighur terrorist elements from Pakistani territory.

Three Chinese engineers working in the Gwadar port construction project in Balochistan were killed in an explosion on May 3, 2004. Uighurs, reportedly operating from the Northern Areas (Gilgit and Baltistan), were suspected. Subsequently, two Chinese engineers working in an irrigation project in the South Waziristan area of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) were kidnapped and one of them was killed in an exchange of fire on October 13 when the Pakistani army mounted a raid to rescue them. The other escaped from the custody of the kidnappers.

It was reported that the kidnapping of the two Chinese engineers was an operation jointly mounted by Pakistani members of the Jundullah (Army of Allah), a new jihadi organization that came to notice for the first time at Karachi last June 10 when it unsuccessfully tried to kill the then corps commander of the Pakistani army at Karachi, members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and some Chechens and Uighurs whose organizational affiliation was not clear. The Pakistani military authorities projected Abdullah Mahsud, a former Taliban commander who was released by the US authorities from detention in their Guantanamo Bay detention camp last March, as the mastermind of the kidnap and admitted that apart from some local tribal followers of Abdullah Mahsud, three Uzbeks were also involved.

Since October 2003, the Pakistani army and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have mounted special operations to smoke out the Chechens, the Uzbeks and the Uighurs operating from the FATA in cooperation with one another. Apart from killing or capturing a few Uzbek and Chechen terrorists and killing a Uighur terrorist, these operations have not produced any significant results. In the meanwhile, the Hizbut Tehrir, which has a strong presence in Pakistan and the Central Asian Republics, has started wooing the Uighurs in an attempt to set up sleeper cells in Xinjiang. Among the major successes claimed by the Pakistani authorities are the killing of Hasan Mahsum of ETIM and of Nek Muhammad, a local Pakistani tribal leader, who was allegedly assisting the al-Qaeda and the Taliban remnants and causing serious injuries to Tohir Yuldeshev of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), who, however, managed to escape.

While the Xinjiang authorities have estimated the number of Uighur terrorists based in Pakistan at about 600, independent reports from Pakistan estimate that about 100 Uighurs are based in the FATA. There are also some operating with the Taliban and Gulbuddin Heckmatyar's Hizbe Islami inside Afghanistan and some others are based in the POK and the Northern Areas. An estimate of their number is not available.

It is also not clear how many of these Uighurs are from Xinjiang and how many are from the Uighur diaspora in Turkey and the Central Asian Republics. Some reports from Pakistan claim that there are more from the diaspora than from inside Xinjiang. They project the acts of jihadi terrorism directed against the Chinese, whether in Xinjiang or in Pakistan, as in essence the work of the diaspora elements.

In the past, Pakistani officials and media reports used to describe the foreign jihadi terrorists operating from South Waziristan as consisting in essence of Uzbeks, Chechens and Uighurs. Of late, there are reports of the presence of some Kazakhs too in this area and in the training camps located there. It is not clear whether these are native Kazakhs or Uighurs from the diaspora in Kazakhstan.

In the meantime, mystery surrounds the death of the deputy chief of the Kazakh Embassy in Islamabad, Sapargaly Abakirov, who was shot in the head at his Islamabad residence on January 19. He died in hospital and his body was flown to his country by a special plane on Sunday. According to Pakistani police, a group of three Chinese and one Kazakh were involved in the murder. Two of the Chinese - Muhammad Hassan and Muhammad Ibrahim - were from Urumqi and had been living in Rawalpindi and Islamabad respectively. The identity of the third Chinese is not clear. The Kazakh has been identified as Muhammad Hussain, a Uighur. He was arrested in the North-West Frontier Province. It has been reported that the diplomat had known these persons for some time and had actually invited them to his house. The motive for the murder is not clear.

B Raman is additional secretary (retired), Cabinet Secretariat, government of India, and currently director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai; he is a former member of the National Security Advisory Board of the government of India. E-mail: corde@vsnl.com. He was also head of the counter-terrorism division of the Research & Analysis Wing, India's external intelligence agency, from 1988 to August 1994.

(Copyright 2005 B Raman.)