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China Fighting Its Own War Against Terror in Xinjiang - 2002-06-12

Chinese officials have said the capture of a key terrorist leader and hundreds of his supporters has blunted a Muslim separatist threat to its oil-rich Xinjiang region. Critics accuse China of exaggerating the danger to excuse a broad crackdown on the Muslim Uighur population in the region.

Several dozen Chinese police clad in blue combat uniforms demonstrate their warrior skills by breaking boards with fists and feet. Chinese officials said these officers in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi, are on the front line of the global war on terrorism.

They show visitors gruesome pictures of 1997 bombings and assassinations they blame on Muslim Uighur separatists. Beijing insists that smaller terror attacks continue in Xinjiang.

The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region is a sparsely populated area of rocky deserts, sand dunes, and grasslands, ringed and crossed by snow-capped mountains. It covers an area bigger than Germany, France, and Spain combined.

It is traditionally home to Muslim Uighurs. They differ ethnically, linguistically and philosophically from the Han Chinese who rule China under the Communist Party.

The Uighurs wrested independence from China for two brief periods during the last century. Beijing has since deployed tens of thousands of troops and police to crush any renewed break-away drive.

Chinese officials say Uighur separatists are terrorists with links to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network across the border in Afghanistan. Mr. bin Laden is blamed for last September's terror attacks in the United States.

Provincial Communist Party Chief Wang Lequan said about 1,000 Uighurs from Xinjiang learned bomb-making and weapons skills in camps run by Mr. bin Laden. He said they crept back home to cause damage and death.

Mr. Wang has said Chinese authorities have captured 110 members of this group. Pakistan recently seized a senior leader and sent him to China for trial. Chinese officials have said Ismail Kadir is a key part of the group of about 10 leaders of the Uighur independence movement. They said the loss of a talented leader and a sizable percentage of fighters will hurt - but not kill - the group they claim threatens peace in this part of China.

Mr. Wang said U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan captured 300 Uighurs in the ranks of Taliban and al Quiada forces. He said it is "a pity" that Washington has not turned them over to China for legal action.

But he also said China has the situation under control because "the number of terrorists is quite small, so the threat to public order is small." Human rights groups have said China detains thousands of Uighurs and has executed many in its drive to control the province.

Nicholas Becquilin is a researcher for the group Human Rights in China. He says China's harsh rule may backfire by angering more Uighurs and prompting them to take up arms. He said Beijing is overreacting.

"The authorities have been extremely harsh in the crack down because they actually think that everything is a threat to their rule. Even the slightest criticism of government policies can land you in jail or in detention," he said.

Journalists traveling in Xinjiang are closely followed by carloads of police. The police apparently interrogate and perhaps intimidate people interviewed by foreign reporters.

The few Uighurs who speak freely complain their land is being overwhelmed by Han immigrants from the rest of China. The Han are the vast majority in most of China. In Xinjiang, they have grown from a small minority to nearly half of the population in the past 50 years, with more arriving daily.

Uighurs also complain that Beijing's efforts to develop the impoverished province mostly benefit Han newcomers.

The energy industry is one example, as construction begins on a pipeline to carry Xinjiang's natural gas thousands of kilometers to eastern China.

One gas industry executive said about 40 percent of his highly paid skilled workers are Communist Party members, but very few are Uighurs. Beijing needs stability in Xinjiang so that it can extract the province's oil and gas to fuel national economic growth.

Even if the province had no resources, China would hold tightly to it. After losing territory to foreign powers in the 19th century, Beijing has regained almost all the land it held historically and has no intention of ever losing any more.

Analysts have said China fears any move toward Xinjiang independence might encourage other reluctant parts of China, such as Tibet, to spin out of Beijing's control.