Chinese state media on Monday blamed Syrian opposition forces, in unusually specific finger-pointing, for training Muslim extremists responsible for the deadliest unrest in four years in China's far-western region of Xinjiang.
China traditionally has blamed violence in Xinjiang, home to Muslim Uighurs, on Islamic separatists who want to establish an independent state of "East Turkestan."
This appears to mark the first time Beijing has blamed a group in Syria, and fits a common narrative of the government portraying Xinjiang's violence as coming from abroad, such as Pakistan, and not due to homegrown anger.
Chinese President Xi Jinping presided over a forum in Beijing last Saturday on maintaining stability in Xinjiang. Paramilitary police have flooded the streets of the regional capital Urumqi after 35 people were killed in two attacks last week, which China has blamed on a gang engaged in "religious extremist activities."
Many Uighurs in Xinjiang resent what they call Chinese government restrictions on their culture, language and religion.
The Global Times, a tabloid owned by the Communist Party mouthpiece, the People's Daily, said that some members of the East Turkestan faction had moved from Turkey into Syria.
"This Global Times reporter has recently exclusively learned from the Chinese anti-terrorism authorities that since 2012, some members of the 'East Turkestan' faction have entered Syria from Turkey, participated in extremist, religious and terrorist organizations within the Syrian opposition forces and fought against the Syrian army,'' the newspaper said.
"At the same time, these elements from 'East Turkestan' have identified candidates to sneak into Chinese territory to plan and execute terrorist attacks.''
Authorities had arrested a 23-year-old "terrorist," known in Chinese as Maimaiti Aili, belonging to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement [ETIM], the report said, adding that he had taken part in the Syrian war.
Dilxat Raxit, the Sweden-based spokesman for the exiled World Uyghur Congress, called the report unrealistic.
"Uighurs already find it very difficult to get passports, how can they run off to Syria?'' Raxit told Reuters by telephone.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying declined to directly answer questions on whether Syrian rebels had joined forces with the East Turkestan movement.
Hua only said at a regular briefing that China has "also noted that in recent years East Turkestan terrorist forces and international terrorist organizations have been uniting, not only threatening China's national security but also the peace and stability of relevant countries and regions."
Officials in Xinjiang and China's ministry of public security were not immediately available for comment.
Pan Zhiping, a retired expert on Central Asia at Xinjiang's Academy of Social Science, said it was possible that the attackers in Xinjiang were involved in the Syrian war, citing members of the East Turkestan movement who had taken part in the Chechnya war, and were extradited by Russia to go on trial in China.
"They are definitely more dangerous, these people, we can call them desperados. They are highly trained and not ordinary citizens," said Pan.
The report by The Global Times follows attempts by China to take a more proactive role in solving the crisis in Syria. China, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, has been keen to show it is not taking sides, and it has urged the Syrian government to talk to the opposition.
Police in Xinjiang have detained 19 people for spreading online rumors that triggered Wednesday's attack in northern Shanshan county, state media said on Monday.
The increased security comes four days before the fourth anniversary of the July 2009 riots in Xinjiang that pitted Uighurs against ethnic Chinese, resulting in nearly 200 people being killed.
Two days after the deadly attack, more than 100 people riding motorbikes and wielding knives attacked a police station in Xinjiang, state media reported.