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China: Officials Say Uyghur Group Involved In Olympic Terror Plot

Uyghurs in China's northwestern Xinjiang Province (epa) Officials in Beijing say they have broken up plots by two terrorist groups, including the Islamic Movement of East Turkestan, a banned Uyghur organization, to stage attacks during the Olympic Games in August.

Public Security Ministry spokesman Wu Heping said on April 10 that both groups are based in northwestern Xinjiang Province, the homeland of ethnic Uyghurs. He said some 45 people have been arrested on suspicion of planning to kidnap athletes and carry out suicide-bomb attacks to disrupt the Olympic Games.

Uyghur rights activists deny the allegations and say China has recently been tightening control over Xinjiang.

Wu said the Islamic Movement of East Turkestan (ETIM), which is led by Aji Muhammat, asked its members to do trial runs using poisoned meat, poison gas, and remote-control explosive devices. Their aim was "to create an international incident with the goal of disrupting the Olympic Games," Wu said, adding that the group carried out 13 test explosions.

ETIM was listed by the United Nations as a terrorist group in 2002 and is purported to have links to Al-Qaeda.

The second group also planned to carry out suicide-bomb attacks in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi, and other cities in China, the spokesman said. The second group was not named.

In both cases, police claim they seized explosives, money, as well as propaganda materials calling on Uyghurs to begin a holy war, or jihad, against Chinese rule.

An Independent East Turkestan

Uyghur separatists have been agitating to reestablish an independent East Turkestan in China's predominantly Muslim, northwestern region of Xinjiang, which borders Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia.

The oil-rich Xinjiang Province is home to 10 million Uyghurs -- a Turkic, mostly Muslim people who share linguistic and cultural bonds with Central Asia. Many resent the growing presence and economic grip of Han Chinese, hundreds of thousands of whom have been sent to the province in recent decades to counterbalance the Uyghur presence, much as has been done by the Chinese government in Tibet.

Xinjiang -- which on two occasions was nominally independent in the 1930 and 1940s -- has been occupied by China since 1949. Uyghurs, like Tibetans, harbor memories of political independence and deep resentment of Chinese control, particularly over the practice of their Islamic faith. Uyghurs have long accused Beijing of using the war against terror to crack down on separatists in Xinjiang Province.

Dilxat Raxit, a Sweden-based spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress, says officials in Beijing use the Olympic games as a pretext to crack down on Uyghurs. "China started its campaign of political attacks against Uyghurs under the pretense of providing security during the Olympic Games," he says. "Thus, the Olympic Games became a means to further suppress Uyghur rights."

Rabiya Kadeer, an exiled Uyghur activist who was once dubbed a "Uyghur Dalai Lama," says Xinjiang has in recent months become a target of the crackdown, just like Tibet. "Chinese dictators got afraid of peaceful protests held in Tibet and suppressed them," Kadeer says. "Then, they announced an emergency situation in East Turkestan and put secret police officers everywhere to monitor the situation."

'Afraid To Talk'

Uyghur activists also say Chinese authorities have increased the monitoring of mosques in what they call East Turkestan and put many locals under surveillance ahead of the Olympics. "Everyone in East Turkestan is afraid to even talk on the phone because the Chinese control every telephone [especially those] brought from abroad," Raxit says.

Kadeer also says control over all institutions, including elementary schools, has been strengthened.

Speaking from Germany, exiled Uyghur rights activist Tolqin Isa claims the number of arrested people is larger than that reported by Chinese authorities. "Because of the events in Tibet, China's control over Eastern Turkestan has strengthened," Isa says. "According to our information, some 450 people were detained recently in only six cities under what we call a military emergency situation. In Urumqi, for example, [police] were searching houses, checking those who came from other cities, and saying they want to find out if there are any suspicious people there."

There have been reports of antigovernment protests among ethnic Uyghurs.

Isa says Uyghurs have been distributing leaflets that call for the independence of East Turkestan. Ethnic Uyghurs around the world have also voiced concern over the worsening human-rights situation in Xinjiang ahead of the Olympics.

"Because of the Olympics due to be held in Beijing, [Chinese authorities] have imprisoned many people whom they consider suspicious," says Akbar Bauddinov, the Bishkek-based editor in chief of the Uyghur-language "Ittipak" (Unity) newspaper. "They have strengthened this control exactly before the Olympics."

As anti-China protests disrupted recent torch relays in San Francisco, London, and Paris, many ethnic Uyghurs were also among the crowds protesting along with Tibetans.

"They have been persecuting my people, conducting ethnic cleansing, they have been suppressing people for their religious freedom," one Uyghur protester was quoted as saying in San Francisco on April 10.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service correspondent Biloliddin Hasanov and Kyrgyz Service correspondent Ilimbek Januzakov contributed to this report