Originally Published 2005-01-27 11:39:55 Published on Jan 27, 2005
The " China Daily" reported on January 22,2005, that 13 persons were killed and 18 others injured in two separate explosions in China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region coinciding with the Eid-al-Adha religious festival.
Explosions in Xinjiang
The " China Daily" reported on January 22,2005, that 13 persons were killed and 18 others injured in two separate explosions in China no.146;s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region coinciding with the Eid-al-Adha religious festival. 

In the first incident, nine passengers were killed instantaneously and two others died subsequently following an explosion on January 20, 2005, in a mini-bus carrying 18 persons at an overpass called Dushanzi in Kuitun, in the Yili Kazahk Autonomous Prefecture. The place where the explosion took place is about 200 kms from the Kazakh border. Most of the victims were reportedly ethnic minorities (Uighurs?) and not Han Chinese. 

Liu Yaohua, head of the Public Security Department of the Autonomous Region, was quoted as saying that 19 people were on the bus. A man and a woman got off during the trip, while a man in his 40s, carrying a black canvas bag, got in when the bus approached the overpass. The blast took place at the right rear-end of the bus. 

The official Hsinhua news agency reported that "explosive material" was responsible for the blast. It quoted Liu Yaohua as saying it was difficult to determine what explosive material was used, and how it was detonated. He added, however, that it was a "man-made" explosion, without saying whether it was caused by an improvised explosive device assembled with a criminal intent. 

While blasts caused by the careless handling of industrial explosives and other hazardous materials are not unusual in China, due to poor enforcement of laws relating to the purchase, possession, storage and transport of industrial explosives, the French news agency Agence France Presse (AFP) quoted unnamed Chinese officials as saying that they cannot rule out the possibility that the blast is linked to the separatist movement of the Muslim Uighurs, the non-Han natives of the province, who have been fighting for an independent State for the Uighurs of Xinjiang and the adjoining Central Asian Republics (CARs) to be called East Turkistan.

While Chinese officials generally do not cover up news of such explosions, they rarely release to the media the results of the enquiries held by them into the incidents. As a result, it is often difficult for the outside world to know definitively what and who caused such explosion. 

Another explosion was reported the same evening from the downtown area in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, killing two and injuring 11. Huang Gongyi, an official with the Urumqi Government, claimed that this incident was caused by natural gas leakage. The explosion reportedly took place at a pressure-adjusting station of a local gas pipeline firm. The local authorities are projecting this incident as purely accidental.

Sixty persons were killed and 200 others injured and over 20 motor vehicles were severely damaged on September 8,2000, following an explosion in a military vehicle traveling on the Xishan Road in the western suburbs of Urumqi. The Chinese authorities did not attribute the explosion to any criminal intent and said that it was purely an accidental explosion due to the careless transporting of old military explosives , which were being taken for being destroyed.

Though there was no evidence to doubt the Chinese claim that it was purely an accidental explosion, certain unusual circumstances surrounding it led to considerable speculation as to whether it could have been purely an accident. The explosion occurred when the vehicle was caught in a traffic jam. It was not involved in any collision with another vehicle.On the day of the explosion, the then Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji was touring the region. While it was not clear whether he was in Urumqi at the time of the explosion, he visited the injured in an Urumqi hospital the next day.Robert Rubin, former US Treasury Secretary and a senior official of Citigroup, was on a visit to Urumqi at the time of the explosion. He had called on Zhu the next day and some American journalists reported that during the meeting Zhu made no reference to the explosion.

Erkin Ekrem, the leader of a pro-separatist group, was quoted by the AFP as saying, "This accident is very strange." He wondered what such a large quantity of explosives was doing in Urumqi. The local authorities immediately set up a special task force to investigate the cause of the explosion. The central Government sent a team of investigators led by Vice-Minister of Public Security Tian Qiyu to Xinjiang. No separatist group claimed responsibility for the explosion. Following an explosion in a bus in Beijing in 1997 which resulted in some casualties, an Uighur separatist group had claimed responsibility for it, but the Chinese authorities dismissed the claim and projected it as an accident.

In a report carried on November 30,2000,the "South China Morning Post" had alleged that Yang Xiaofeng, the head of the "Lanzhou Daily" news center, was demoted, and two journalists of the "Lanzhou Evening News" were dismissed by the authorities for violating "news discipline" by reporting independently on the explosion instead of carrying the version put out by Xinhua. as they were expected to.Though their reports too did not mention any possible criminal intent, the sensitivity of the Chinese authorities to any independent investigative reporting of the explosion raised eye-brows. 

Government investigators were subsequently quoted as saying that the military vehicle had violated the regulations by carrying what was described as mixed explosives and that the bumpy road caused the explosion. This was at variance with eye-witness accounts that the explosion occurred when the vehicle was stationery due to a traffic jam.Two senior military officers were reportedly dismissed and about 10 others punished for alleged negligence. 

According to the #146;South China Morning Post", the "Lanzhou Daily" and the "Lanzhou Evening News" had sent reporters to the site and covered the explosion with photos and first-hand reports even before the Xinhua had released the officially authorised account. Their reports were picked up by many online news sites and sections of the international media. 

Following the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US, the authorities of Xinjiang mounted a publicity campaign to project the Uighur terrorist groups as forming part of the international jihadi terrorist movement inspired by Osama bin Laden and as having links with Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.For the first time, they admitted a number of terrorist incidents, which had taken place in the region during the 1990s and many of which they had not publicly admitted before.

A press statement titled "Terrorist Activities Perpetrated by "Eastern Turkistan" Organizations and Their Links with Osama bin Laden and the Taliban" issued by the regional authorities on November 29,2001, gave the following details of their activities: 

I. Terrorist activities committed by "Eastern Turkistan" elements in and outside the Chinese territory
The "Eastern Turkistan" force has a total of over 40 organizations. They have engaged themselves in terrorist violence to varying degrees, both overtly and covertly. Among these organizations, eight openly advocate violence in their political platforms. They are: "Eastern Turkistan Islamic Resistance Movement" in Turkey; "Eastern Turkistan Liberation Organization", "Eastern Turkistan International Committee", "United Committee of Uygurs' Organizations" in Central Asia, and "Central Asian Uygur Hezbollah" in Kazakhstan; "Turkistan Party" in Pakistan; "Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement" in Afghanistan; and "Eastern Turkistan Youth League" in Switzerland.

II.Incidents of terrorist violence perpetrated by "Eastern Turkistan" elements over the past 10 years in the Chinese territory mainly include:

On 5 April 1990, they killed and injured more than 100 civilians and soldiers in Barin Township of Kizilsu Kirgiz Autonomous Prefecture; 
On 5 February 1991, the "Islamic Reformist Party" masterminded a bus explosion in Urumqi, killing and injuring over 20 people; 
Between June and September 1993, the "Eastern Turkistan Democratic Islamic Party" carried out a series of bombings in southern Xinjiang, which led to more deaths and injuries;

On 15 July 1996, the "Eastern Turkistan Islamic Justice Party" engineered a prison rebellion in Xayar County, killing 15 people and a riot in Yining on 5 February 1997, which resulted in over 300 casualties; 

On 25 February 1997, the "Eastern Turkistan National Solidarity Union" staged a horrendous bomb explosion incident in Urumqi which involved nearly 100 casualties and in early 1998 the same group was responsible for 25 poisoning cases in southern Xinjiang, where over 40 people fell victim and four died;

In January 2001, Akbelbek Timur, an "Eastern Turkistan" terrorist who is now in custody, bought explosives in Kazakhstan and smuggled them into Xinjiang for attempted terrorist activities. 

III.Incidents of terrorist violence committed by "Eastern Turkistan" elements in recent years outside China mainly include:

In February 1997, "Eastern Turkistan" terrorists opened fire on the Chinese Embassy in Ankara, attacked the Chinese Consulate-General in Istanbul and burned Chinese national flags; 

On 5 March 1998, terrorists of the "Eastern Turkistan National Center" carried out bomb attacks on the Chinese Consulate-General in Istanbul; 

In November 1999 and August 2000, the "Eastern Turkistan" elements were involved in an armed insurgency and invasion led by the "Uzbek Islamic Movement" into the southern regions of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan ; 

In May 2000, terrorists of the "Uygur Liberation Organization" set fire to the Chinese Commodities Market in Bishkek and murdered one person from China's Xinjiang, who was sent to Kyrgyzstan to investigate the case; 

On 28 September 2000, terrorists under the command of the "Uygur Liberation Organization" killed two Kazkh policemen in Alma-Ata; 

In May 2001, terrorists of the "Uygur Youth Association of Kazakhstan" robbed in Alma-Ata a bank vehicle that carried banknotes. 

IV. The Relationship Between the "Eastern Turkistan" Terrorists and the Taliban and Osama bin Laden

bin Laden and the Taliban have provided the "Eastern Turkistan" terrorist organizations with equipment and funds and trained their personnel. The basic facts are as follows:

The "Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement" ( ETIM) is a major component of the terrorist network headed by bin Laden. Hasan Mahsum, the ETIM ringleader,used to hide in Kabul and had an Afghan passport issued by the Taliban. bin Laden asked the ETIM to stir up trouble in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and then stage an organized infiltration into Xinjiang. The "Turkistan Army" under the ETIM fought along with the Taliban in Afghanistan. This "Army" has a special "China Battalion" with about 320 terrorists from Xinjiang. The battalion is under the direct command of Hasan Mahsum's deputy Kabar. 

The armed elements of the ETIM received training in terrorist training camps in Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kunduz, Vardak, Kandahar, Herat, Shibarghan and other places. Some of these camps were directly under the control of bin Laden and the Taliban and some were military bases of the "Uzbek Islamic Movement". The "Central Asian Uygur Hezbollah" is said to have a 1000-strong armed force and had training bases in Afghanistan. The "Uygur National Army" received battle training in July and August 1999 in the Taliban bases in Afghanistan. They practiced firing with conventional weapons with live ammunition and learned the Taliban guerilla warfare tactics and terrorist skills such as assassination, explosion and poisoning. After their training, the "Eastern Turkistan" elements fought in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Uzbekistan, or returned to Xinjiang for terrorist and violent activities. 

In early 1999, bin Laden met with Hasan Mahsum and offered him financial assistance. In 2000, bin Laden and the Taliban provided the ETIM with 300, 000 US dollars and undertook to cover all the expenses of the ETIM in 2001. The activities of the "Central Asian Uygur Hezbollah" are also partially financed by bin Laden. 

The "People#146;s Daily" of December 11, 2001, gave the following details of the activities of the terrorists in Xinjiang: 

Explosions: On February 5, 1992, the terrorists set off a chain of explosions in public buses, video-show halls and some residential buildings, killing three persons and injuring 20 others. In 1993, the terrorists staged 10 explosions , committed four assassinations or attempted assassinations in Kashi, Kotan and Aksu, killing two persons and injuring 36 others. February 25, 1997, saw five explosions on buses in Urumqi, killing nine persons and injuring 68 others. Between February 22 and March 30, 1998, the terrorists organised six explosions at Yecheng County.Three persons were injured and a natural-gas pipeline was damaged. 

Assassinations: The terrorists killed a religious cleric in the Xinhe County on 22 March 1996 and on May 12,1996, they killed the chief mullah of the Idgah Mosque, who was concurrently vice-chairman of the Political Consultative Conference of Xinjiang. On April 9 the same year, five relatives of the former deputy Party secretary of the Alahake Township were killed. This was followed by the assassination of another deputy secretary of the political and judicial commission, a member of the Party Committee of the Bosikehe Township of Zepu County and his son. On January25, 2000, the terrorists killed seven members of two Han families in the Wushi County. The next day,they killed a Han elderly couple in the Xinhe County. 

Arson: A terrorist plan to set fire to 15 commercial establishments on 23 May, 1998, was thwarted. . 

Poisoning: Between January 30 and February 18,1998, the terrorists were involved in 23 cases of poisoning or attempted poisoning in Kashi. Rioting and other incidents:On July. 7, 1995, the terrorists attempted to break into the Prefectural Party Committee, Government offices and public security bureau at Kotan and damage the property. On February 5 - 6, 1997, seven persons were killed and over 200 injured in a rioting incited by the terrorists in Yining.More than 20 vehicles were set on fire.On April 5, 1990 the terrorists incited a riot in Baren Township, Aktao County, in which eight members of the local f armed police were killed. 

On May 27, 2002. the Xinjiang regional authorities held a special press conference to brief the media inter alia on the activities of Uighur terrorists from Pakistani territory. They announced that the Pakistani authorities had arrested Ismail Kadir, an Uighur terrorist who was operating from Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK) in March,2002, and handed him over to the Xinjiang authorities. They described him as the third-highest leader of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement. 

The Chinese officials also told the press conference that they were asking the US to hand over to them 300 Uighurs , who, according to the Chinese, were caught by the Americans during their operations against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and kept in American detention centres in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

Wang Lequan, Xinjiang#146;s Communist Party Secretary, told the press conference that Kadir was caught by the Pakistani authorities while meeting underground Muslim groups in POK. He said he did not know other details about the case and added: " China finds it `hard to understand and a pity that some people do not believe that our efforts to fight terrorism are part of the international campaign.#146;#146;

Aziz Ait, the Deputy Director-General of the paramilitary People#146;s Armed Police in Xinjiang, claimed that the number of terrorist incidents had declined, but did not give details. He said he could not give an estimate of how many terrorists were still active in the region. He added: ``It is not safe to say Xinjiang is completely free of terrorist attacks, so we have to remain on guard."

18.The Xinjiang officials claimed that they had broken up six groups since the beginning of 2002 while they were plotting attacks. They said: ``They were terrorists making guns or weapons and were caught. They didn#146;t have time to commit terrorist attacks before they were caught.#146;#146; 

Wang said China believed that more than 1,000 Uighurs were trained by Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. About 110 of them came back to China and were captured; about 300 were captured by U.S. forces, about 20 were killed, and about 600 were thought to have escaped to northern Pakistan. He said his information came from ``intelligence reports#146;#146;.

Zhang Qiyue, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said China had received no response from Washington to its request that the captured Uighurs be handed over to it for investigation and trial.

The "Daily Times", a prestigious daily newspaper of Lahore, reported on January 17,2004, that in a significant move, the Chinese Government had sent to Islamabad a list and profile of terrorists and terrorist organisations of concern to the Government of China and had wanted them investigated by Pakistan. 

It quoted Pakistani officials as saying: "A list of the first batch of identified eastern Turkistan#146;s terrorist organisations and profiles of terrorists compiled by the Ministry of Public Security, China, on December 15, 2003, have been sent through diplomatic channels to Pakistan, with a request to forward the list to the departments concerned for investigation." 

The Chinese concerns were focused largely on two terrorist outfits, the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and the Eastern Turkistan Liberation Organisation (ETLO) as well as terrorists belonging to these organisations. It was reported that China had also alleged that these organisations and terrorists were well connected to Al Qaeda and received training as well as funding from it.

It was also reported by the Pakistani media that, according to the Chinese authorities, the Eastern Turkistan Liberation Organization (ETLO) is also known as the Eastern Turkistan National Party. It is said to be working for the founding of an Eastern Turkistan State in Xinjiang through violence and terror. Its headquarters are in Istanbul. The founder of the organisation is Muhametemin Hazret and its main leaders include Kanat, Dolqun Isa and Ubul Kasimund. 

According to the Pakistani media, the Foreign as well as the Interior Ministers of the two countries had met in 2002 and discussed counter-terrorism issues. In 2003, when President General Musharraf visited China, an extradition treaty was signed between the two countries and China took up the issue of the activities of the Uighur terrorist groups from Pakistani territory. Musharraf was subsequently reported to have told a group of senior Pakistani editors that he was surprised by the strong language used by the Chinese while referring to the activities of Uighur terrorist elements from Pakistani territory.

Three Chinese engineers working in the Gwadar port construction project in Balochistan were killed in an explosion on May 3,2004. Uighurs, reportedly operating from the Northern Areas (Gilgit and Baltistan), were suspected.Subsequently, two Chinese engineers working in an irrigation project in the South Waziristan area of the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) were kidnapped and one of them was killed in an exchange of fire on October 13,2004, when the Pakistan Army mounted a raid to rescue them. The other escaped from the custody of the kidnappers. 

It was reported that the kidnapping of the two Chinese engineers was an operation jointly mounted by Pakistani members of the Jundullah (Army of Allah), a new jihadi organisation which came to notice for the first time at Karachi on June 10, 2004, when it unsuccessfully tried to kill the then Corps Commander of the Pakistan Army at Karachi, members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and some Chechens and Uighurs whose organisational affiliation was not clear. The Pakistani military authorities projected Abdullah Mahsud, a former Taliban commander who was released by the US authorities from detention in their Guantanamo Bay detention camp in March last, as the mastermind of the kidnap and admitted that apart from some local tribal followers of Abdullah Mahsud, three Uzbeks were also involved. 

Since October,2003, the Pakistan Army and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have mounted special operations to smoke out the Chechens, the Uzbeks and the Uighurs operating from the FATA in co-operation with each other. Apart from killing or capturing a few Uzbek and Chechen terrorists and killing an Uighur terrorist, these operations have not produced any significant results. In the meanwhile, the Hizbut Tehrir, which has a strong presence in Pakistan and the Central Asian Republics, has started wooing the Uighurs in an attempt to set up sleeper cells in Xinjiang. Amongst the major successes claimed by the Pakistani authorities are the killing of Hasan Mahsum of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement and of Nek Muhammad, a local Pakistani tribal leader, who was allegedly assisting the Al Qaeda and the Taliban remnants and causing serious injuries to Tohir Yuldeshev of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), who, however, managed to escape. 

While the Xinjiang authorities have been estimating the number of Uighur terrorists based in Pakistan at about 600, independent reports from Pakistan estimate that about 100 Uighurs are based in the FATA. There are also some operating with the Taliban and Gulbuddin Heckmatyar#146;s Hizbe Islami inside Afghanistan and some others are based in the POK and the Northern Areas. An estimate of their number is not available.

30. It is also not clear how many of these Uighurs are from Xinjiang and how many are from the Uighur diaspora in Turkey and the Central Asian Republics (CARs). Some reports from Pakistan claim that there are more from the diaspora than from inside Xinjiang. They project the acts of jihadi terrorism directed against the Chinese, whether in Xinjiang or in Pakistan, as essentially the work of the diaspora elements.

In the past, Pakistani officials and media reports used to describe the foreign jihadi terrorists operating from South Waziristan as consisting essentially of Uzbeks, Chechens and Uighurs. Of late, there are reports of the presence of some Kazakhs too in this area and in the training camps located there. It is not clear whether these are native Kazakhs or Uighurs from the diaspora in Kazakhstan.

In the meanwhile, mystery surrounds the death of the Deputy Chief of the Kazakh Embassy in Islamabad,Sapargaly Abakirov, who was shot in the head at his Islamabad residence on January 19 . He died subsequently in hospital and his body was flown to his country by a special plane on January 23. According to the Pakistani Police, a group of three Chinese and one Kazakh were involved in the murder. Two of the Chinese---Muhammad Hassan and Muhammad Ibrahim--- were both from Urumqi, who have been living in Rawalpindi and Islamabad respectively. The identity of the third Chinese is not clear.The Kazakh has been identified as Muhammad Hussain, an Uighur. He was arrested in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) . It has been reported that the diplomat had known these persons for some time and had actually invited them to his house. The motive for the murder is not clear. 

This may please be read in continuation of my earlier Paper no. 1145, dated 18. 10. 2004, titled " ANOTHER TERRORIST ATTACK ON CHINESE ENGINEERS IN PAKISTAN", which is available at www.saag.org  

< The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Distinguished Fellow and Convenor, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Chennai Chapter.>

* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.