The United States has revoked the terror designation of a separatist Chinese group that allegedly operates out of Afghanistan and claims to be fighting for the rights of China’s Muslim minority Uighurs.
Beijing accuses the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, or ETIM, of plotting terrorism in the far western Chinese resource-rich region of Xinjiang, home to some 10 million Turkic-speaking Uighur Muslims.
Global rights groups, Uighur exiles and Western countries have lately intensified criticism of China over allegations it is holding around a million members of the minority community in internment camps in Xinjiang on the pretext of fighting Islamic radicalism.
“I hereby revoke the designation of the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, also known as ETIM, as a 'terrorist organization,’” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a brief October 20 directive published on Thursday.
Washington listed ETIM as terrorist group in 2003.
The separatist group also had set up bases in Pakistan but close security collaboration and intelligence sharing between Pakistan and China in recent years, say officials, has effectively dismantled ETIM activities on Pakistani soil.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin denounced the U.S. decision as “whitewashing” terror groups.
“The East Turkestan Islamic Movement is a terrorist organization listed by the U.N. Security Council and known as a terrorist group by the international community. Terrorism is terrorism. The United States should immediately correct its mistakes, refrain from whitewashing terrorist organizations, and stop reversing the course of international counter-terrorism cooperation,” the spokesman said.
Beijing denies the allegations it is suppressing the rights of the minority community but defends a massive crackdown underway in Xinjiang against suspected ETIM-linked loyalists there.
China released a rare documentary earlier in the year, showing some of the deadly attacks allegedly orchestrated by the militant group in Xinjiang, which shares borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan.
While latest U.S. estimates put the number of ETIM fighters in Afghanistan at around 100, the United Nations reported in July this year that “approximately 500” militants linked to the group operate in Raghistan and Warduj districts of Badakhshan province. The assessment also noted ETIM’s presence in neighboring Takhar and Kunduz provinces.
The U.S. military in Afghanistan also reported in early 2018 it had carried out bombings of militant camps training Taliban insurgents and ETIM fighters in northeastern Badakhshan, which borders China and Tajikistan.
U.S. officials at the time said the action was part of their efforts to "support Afghanistan in reassuring its neighbors that it is not a safe sanctuary for terrorists who want to carry out cross border operations."
The Taliban, which controls or contests nearly half of Afghan territory, denies the presence of al-Qaida or ETIM-linked militants in insurgent-held territory.
A Taliban spokesman Friday again vehemently rejected the charges, when asked whether it is harboring fighters linked to the separatist Chinese group or the al-Qaida terror network.
“No foreign citizens are present in areas under our control in Afghanistan, nor the Islamic Emirate [Taliban] allows anyone to use our soil to threaten other nations,” Zabihullah Mujahid told VOA. He asserted the charges are part of “the enemy’s intelligence-driven campaign” to malign the insurgent group.
The Taliban sealed a landmark agreement with the U.S. in February to close the 19-year-old Afghan war. The deal binds the insurgents to renounce ties with al-Qaida and prevent transnational terrorist groups from using Afghan soil for international attacks.
In return all U.S. and NATO troops have committed to stage a complete “conditions-based” withdrawal from Afghanistan by May 2021.
The deal opened the first peace negotiations between the Taliban and representatives of the Afghan government in September, but the dialogue has for most part stalled without any significant breakthrough.