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Terrorism in Xinjiang, China - 2002-08-28

The fight against terrorism and U.S. policy in Iraq were on the agenda earlier this week in Beijing, where U.S Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage met with Chinese officials. While there, he said the U.S. placed a Xinjiang separatist movement on its list of terrorist organizations for supporting terrorism. Some background on this now from VOA’s Beijing correspondent Jim Randle.

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

NATURAL SOUND – soldiers training

Officials show grim pictures of bombings and assassinations in the 1990's they blame on Muslim Uighur separatists. They say nine people died and scores were injured in one series of bus bombings. Beijing insists that smaller scale terror attacks continue to this day.

Xinjiang is a sparsely populated area of rocky deserts, sand dunes, grasslands and mountains, covering a vast area bigger than Germany, France, and Spain combined. Its towns were once oasis stops on the ancient Silk Road that carried trade in spices and exotic riches from East Asia to the Arab lands and medieval Europe.

NATURAL SOUND – call to prayer
“Allah u Akbar”

It is traditionally home to Muslim Uighurs, who differ ethnically, linguistical1y, and philosophically from the Han Chinese who rule China under the officially atheist Communist party.

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

Weapons are displayed by Chinese officials who say they were seized from terrorists. As part of a Chinese effort to convince the world that Uighur separatists are terrorists with links to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network across the border in nearby Afghanistan.

Mr. bin Laden is blamed for last September's terror attacks that killed thousands of Americans. Provincial Communist Party Chief Wang Lequan says about 1,000 Uighurs from Xinjiang learned bomb-making and weapons skills in camps run by Mr. bin Laden, and crept back home determined to cause damage and death.

WANG LEQUAN, (translation)
"We have captured 110 members of this group and Pakistan recently seized their number three leader and sent him to China for trial.

US troops fighting in Afghanistan also captured 300 Uighurs in the ranks of Taleban and al-Qaida forces. It is a pity Washington has not turned them over to China for legal action."

The human rights group Amnesty International fears China may resort to brutality to keep control of the region.

"We are concerned that the government has intensified its political repression in the region against groups that they accuse of being involved in terrorist activities or separatist or even what they call extremist religious activities. These are the three main targets of the campaign that was renewed after the 11th of September. And which we believe has led to probably thousands of arrests."

China denies that Uighurs are mistreated or denied rights, but journalists who travel in Xinjiang are closely followed by carloads of plainclothes and uniformed police who sometime try to discourage photographers.

The police apparently interrogate and perhaps intimidate people interviewed by foreign reporters.

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

Uighurs also complains that Beijing's multi-billion dollar efforts to develop this impoverished western province mostly benefit the Han newcomers, not the traditional Uighur residents.

The key energy industry is one example, as construction gets underway on a huge pipeline to carry Xinjiang’s natural gas thousands of kilometers to eastern China.

One gas industry executive says about 40 percent of his skilled and highly paid workers are Communist Party members, but very few are Uighurs.

Beijing is hanging on to Xinjiang tightly because it needs the province's oil and gas to fuel China's roaring economic growth.

But analysts say few of Xinjiang’s Muslims share in that growth making them more receptive to calls for independence.

China fears any successful move toward Xinjiang's independence might encourage other reluctant parts of China like Tibet to spin out of Beijing's control.