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Kyrgyzstan: Authorities Probe Bishkek Murders

A Chinese diplomat and an Uyghur businessman were gunned down as they were traveling in a car in the center of Bishkek late on 29 June. Kyrgyz police have detained at least one suspect in connection with the shooting as Beijing presses the Central Asian country for quick action. Kyrgyz officials say it is too early to pinpoint the motive, but some voices point to the likelihood of a terrorist act by Uyghur separatists.

Prague, 2 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Wang Jianping, consul at the Chinese embassy in Bishkek, and Nurmachamed Umarov, a Chinese citizen of Uyghur nationality living in Kyrgyzstan, were gunned down in the center of Bishkek late on 29 June.

Kyrgyz police and officials have speculated the shooting could have been a contract, mafia-style killing, with Umarov as the main target. But some reports say authorities suspect the killings are linked to separatist movements in China's Xinjiang autonomous region. A small number of ethnic Uyghurs in Xinjiang have in recent years waged an intermittent campaign of violence to campaign for an independent state of East Turkestan in the region.

About 9 million Muslims, mainly Turkic-speaking ethnic Uyghurs, live in Xinjiang. The Uyghurs declared an East Turkestan Republic in Xinjiang in 1944 but have been kept under firm Chinese control since the communists seized power in 1949.

RFE/RL's correspondent in Bishkek reports that Kyrgyz police have detained one suspect in connection with the case. Meanwhile, Kyrgyz authorities also told RFE/RL's bureau in the capital that a taxi driver who allegedly brought the gunmen to the place of the shooting has been questioned by police.

Doolotbek Nusupov, the leader of the Asaba (Flag) nationalist party, pointed out that Kyrgyz nationals are not responsible for the shooting. "The Chinese know that the economic situation in Kyrgyzstan is bad, and they are committing crimes here, which would be impossible to do in China. But Kyrgyz people would not commit such crimes. This is just an internal Chinese matter," Nusupov said.

Sunday Egemberdiev, a spokesman for the Kyrgyz Interior Ministry, said Bishkek has not ruled out that it is "Uyghur separatists drawing attention to themselves once again."

According to Tursunbek Akun, chairman of the Human-Rights Movement of Kyrgyzstan, last week's killing is part of the very tense situation in Xinjiang and could be retaliation by Uyghur separatists. "Here is my opinion: China, which has occupied East Turkestan, now represses local people, saying they are rebels and mujahedins. China represses Uyghurs who are fighting for their motherland's freedom. The Chinese are killing them, taking them into custody, and deporting some of them inside Chinese territory. At the same time, they send Han nationals to Turkestan in order to assimilate local people," Akun said.

Uyghur organizations, such as the Ittipak (Union) Society, which defends cultural and political rights in Kyrgyzstan, have said that no one should interfere in the investigation and warns that the case should not be politicized.

Enver Can is the president of the Germany-based East Turkestan National Congress, which has representatives in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. He told RFE/RL that he is afraid that the Uyghur community in Kyrgyzstan, which totals about 50,000, will be made scapegoats for the killings, given the pressure China is exerting on Kyrgyzstan. "In this case, the Uyghur man -- as far as I am informed -- is a businessman. And he had no good relationship with the people he had economic relations [with]. So it is possible that it is an ordinary criminal case, that people, whoever they are, killed him for his misdoings," Can said.

Can stressed that the Kyrgyz authorities have always tried to fabricate a link to the Uyghur community in order to please China, such as in Nigmat Bazakov's case. Last January, a court in Bishkek sentenced to death an Uyghur from Uzbekistan for the murders in Bishkek in March 2000 of Bazakov, the head of the Ittipak Society in Kyrgyzstan, and in May 2000 of three visiting Uyghur officials from Xinjiang. Three other Uyghurs, one from Turkey and two from China, received prison sentences on the same charges.

In recent years, analysts say, China has tried to counter the Uyghurs' calls for independence by improving relations with Kyrgyzstan, recognizing that Central Asia has gained strategic significance deriving from the links the region has to Islamic fundamentalism. "China exerts big pressure on the Kyrgyz government. So sometimes it has to do something according to Chinese wishes. In the past, China tried to build the Shanghai Five [group] and gave economic assistance to the Kyrgyz government. And there were some peaceful Uyghur people who fled East Turkestan, fleeing Chinese oppression, and China asked them back. And Kyrgyzstan deported them," Can said. China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan established the Shanghai Five group in 1996 to help defuse tensions along China's borders with the former Soviet Central Asian states. The grouping was renamed the Shanghai Cooperation Organization last year when Uzbekistan became a member, while expanding its focus to include fighting terrorism, extremism, and separatism. Uyghur separatism has been cited as a source of regional insecurity at meetings of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Since 11 September, Beijing has intensified its crackdown on suspected separatists in Xinjiang, emphasizing that such actions are necessary to ensure the success of the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism.

Dingli Shen, a professor of International Relations at Fudan University in Shanghai, told RFE/RL: "Kyrgyzstan is a part of [the] Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Within this organization, the member states are supposed to collaborate in combating terrorism, extremism, and separatism. So I think the government of Kyrgyzstan should cooperate with China [just] as China should cooperate with Kyrgyzstan in combating those kinds of terrorism.

Shen said China is using tough methods against Uyghurs who use violent means to achieve their goal of independence. "I think our policy is: We safeguard the integrity of China. So we would not allow those kinds of independent movements, and we would do hard work against those people who use violent means -- terrorist means -- to achieve their purpose," Shen said.

Beijing has insisted that separatists in Xinjiang have links to the Al-Qaeda network in Afghanistan and should be dealt with as part of the global war against terrorism. This claim has been rejected by the United States, while human-rights groups such as Amnesty International have expressed concern that Beijing is using antiterrorism objectives as an excuse to repress even peaceful dissent among the Uyghur population.

(Tynchtykbek Tchoroyev of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)