China Reports Hints of Olympic Terrorism

BEIJING, CHINA—On Sunday, Chinese officials announced that an attempted terrorist act aboard a flight in western China was thwarted and the would be attackers were in custody. The incident took place on a Friday China Southern Airlines flight departing from Urumqi, the capital city of China’s western Xinjiang province. 
Speaking in between sessions at the ongoing National People’s Congress in Beijing, Nur Bekri, chairman of the Xinjiang provincial government, said that the plane made an emergency landing because “some people were trying to create an air disaster.” 
The Southern Metropolitan Daily, a newspaper based in the southern city of Guangzhou reported on Monday that two suspects, a teenage girl of the Uyghur ethnic minority and an accomplice, were arrested. According the report, a flight attendant detected a suspicious smell and traced it to the girl, who was subsequently subdued by the crew. An accomplice was found in the plane’s restroom attempting to ignite a fuel substance. 
Following the Friday incident, Chinese officials also elaborated on the previously sparse details of a January police raid on a secessionist training camp on the Pamir Plateau in western Xinjiang. In the ensuing confrontation, two individuals were killed and another 15 were arrested. Speaking from Beijing on Sunday, Wang Lequan, the Communist Party Chief of Xinjiang, said the separatists were planning attacks on the upcoming 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. 
Xinjiang province is home to several Central Asian minorities, the most prominent of which is the Uyghur ethnicity. Uyghurs, who are predominantly Muslim, have a long history of confrontation with ethnic Chinese, and the region briefly achieved autonomy from 1933 to 1934, and again from 1944 to 1949. Since the communists took control of the country, Beijing has kept the province firmly under its thumb; however, sentiments of dissent and revolution have continued to simmer in Uyghur communities. 
Details of clashes between Uyghurs and the government are usually sparse and reporting on the subject is highly restricted. In 1997, in one of the more publicized incidents, roughly 1,000 Uyghurs clashed with military police in the town of Ghulja, resulting in anywhere between 10 and 200 Uyghur deaths. Shortly after, separatists retaliated by bombing three buses in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi, killing nine people.
In a controversial move in 2005, the US State Department named the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a Uyghur separatist group based in countries neighboring China, as a terrorist organization with affiliations to Al Qaeda. In the aftermath of the US invasion of Afghanistan, roughly two dozen Uyghurs were arrested and imprisoned along with other terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.
According to a 2006 article in The Washington Post, most if, not all of the Uyghur detainees have been cleared of charges and five exonerated prisoners were released to Albania in May 2006 amid fears that they would be tortured or executed if returned to China. The legal status of the remaining Uyghurs remains unclear.
According to the Washington DC-based Uyghur American Association, China launched a preemptive crackdown on dissent in Xinjiang last year, including seizures of Uyghur passports as well as an increase in random arrests and lengthy detentions.

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