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05-08-08, 11:30
August 5, 2008
By ANDREW JACOBS

BEIJING — Two men armed with knives and explosives ambushed a military police unit in China’s majority Muslim northwest Monday morning, killing 16 officers and wounding 16 others before being arrested, according to the state media.

The assault, the deadliest terrorist attack in China since the early 1990s, took place 2,100 miles from Beijing, but just four days before the start of the Olympics, adding to security concerns in the capital as hundreds of thousands of foreign athletes, journalists and spectators begin to arrive.

China, anxious to avert any possibility of terrorist attack during the Games, has girded Beijing with soldiers, missile launchers and sidewalk cameras. The heavy surveillance did not prevent a small protest near Tiananmen Square on Monday by people who said they had not been compensated after their homes were demolished for a redevelopment project, but a swarm of police officers rapidly broke it up.

Security officials say they remain confident the events will take place without incident.

“We are prepared to deal with any kind of security threat and we are confident we will have a safe and peaceful Olympic Games,” said Sun Weide, a spokesman for the Beijing Organizing Committee.

The assault took place at dawn in the oasis city of Kashgar, as a brigade of border patrol officers jogged outside their barracks near the city center.

Officials suggested the attackers were associated with a murky separatist movement seeking independence for China’s Uighur minority, a Turkic-speaking Muslim people who dominate the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Details were reported by Xinhua, the official news agency, and could not be independently verified Monday.

According to those accounts, two men driving a dump truck rammed their vehicle into the jogging soldiers, killing or wounding 10. The attackers jumped out of the truck, stabbing the soldiers with knives, and then lobbed homemade bombs at the barracks, although they exploded outside the compound, Xinhua said. The police arrested the attackers, whom they described as Uighurs, 28 and 33 years old, but did not release their names. Xinhua said the arm of one man was badly injured when an explosive device detonated in his hand. The police later discovered another 10 such devices and what it described as a “home-made gun” in the dump truck.

Images reportedly taken from local Kashgar television and briefly posted on the Internet showed bodies shrouded in white sheets or on stretchers. The attack, however, received no mention on the evening news in Beijing.

In recent years, China has waged an increasingly muscular battle against those it describes as radical Muslims. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a group listed as a terrorist organization by the United States and China, is blamed for much of the violence in Xinjiang. The attacks, as recounted by the Chinese government, often involve bombings targeting police stations, public buses, factories and oil pipelines.

Human rights advocates say the official accounts are often exaggerated to justify wide-ranging crackdowns on Uighur advocates of all stripes. Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress, an exile group based in Germany, said the Chinese government had been systematically repressing the culture and religion of Xinjiang residents, and that such policies were radicalizing a growing number of people. “These policies are forcing more Uighurs to turn to more militant protest,” he said.

Chinese security strategists have cited groups like the East Turkestan Islamic Movement as the greatest threat to the Olympics. At a news conference last week, officials said a crackdown on Uighur separatists this year had led to the arrest of 82 people who they said were plotting to disrupt the Games through acts of terrorism.

Last month, the authorities executed two men and meted out heavy sentences to 15 others who they said were members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. The men were seized during a raid on what officials said was as a terrorist training camp. Also last month, the police raided an apartment in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, and shot dead five men who they said were planning a “holy war” against the region’s ethnic Han population.

The official media has publicized other acts in recent months, including what the authorities said was a thwarted attack by three airline passengers who were planning to crash a Beijing-bound plane. The suspects were armed with containers of gasoline, according to Xinhua.

As in previous cases, the authorities presented little evidence to back up their claims. Yitzhak Shichor, a professor of East Asian studies at the University of Haifa in Israel who specializes in the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, voiced doubt that the attack Monday in Kashgar had been an act of terrorism. He said he thought the government was trying to continue its vilification of the group, which if it exists at all, does not have the manpower or weaponry to carry out a sophisticated attack. “I am very skeptical of this kind of information that comes only from Chinese sources,” he said.

But Li Wei, a counterterrorism expert at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, disagreed, saying he thought the attack bore the hallmarks of Uighur separatists determined to grab the spotlight at a time when all the world is focusing on China. “They are trying to use the international media to make some noise, to let more people know them and create panic in society,” he said.

Jake Hooker and Tang Xuemei contributed research.