Four days before the start of the Olympic Games in Beijing, China's official news agency has reported that 16 police officers have been killed in an attack in a mainly Muslim Central Asian border province.
Xinhua news agency says two attackers used a dump truck to ram their way into a paramilitary police station in the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar and then tossed two grenades, killing 16 police officers and wounding another 16.
Xinhua said the attackers struck at 8 a.m. local time, plowing into policemen performing morning exercises next to their border-patrol station. After the truck hit an electrical pole, the pair jumped out, threw homemade explosives at the barracks, and "also hacked the policemen with knives." Xinhua said 14 died on the spot and two others en route to a hospital.
The report said police arrested the two attackers, one of whom was injured, but did not identify them. Local authorities are calling it a terrorist act and the Chinese media have mentioned the "Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement" in connection with the attack.
The attack happened in China's western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), which is home to a simmering rebellion by the native Muslim Turkic people, the Uyghurs, who have resented Chinese rule. Kashgar lies just 130 kilometers from the border with Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Kyrgyzstan.
In the months leading up to the Olympics, the government has carefully monitored events there. There have been reports of violence and allegations from officials that some people arrested there were involved in antigovernment plots ahead of the Olympics. China is deploying more than 100,000 police and soldiers to guard against terrorist attacks during the Summer Games, which officially kick off on August 8.
In March, Chinese security officials arrested three people, all Uyghurs, and charged them with plotting to blow up a Chinese airliner. There have been reports of demonstrations breaking out in bazaars in Xinjiang, which Chinese authorities blame on separatists but which Uyghur nationalist groups in exile said were the result of the Chinese government's crackdown ahead of the start of the Olympics.
Xinhua quoted Kurexi Maihesuti, the vice chairman of the XUAR, as telling a press conference last week that Xinjiang police had broken up five terrorist groups in the XUAR in the first half of 2008.
Xinjiang has been the Uyghurs' homeland for some 2,000 years. During that time the region has at times been part of Chinese empires and at other times independent. The region was reincorporated into China in 1949, after a brief period of self-rule.
Uyghurs today are concerned by the influx of Han Chinese into the region, some sent as part of Beijing's attempt to colonize and solidify its claim to the XUAR. Other Han have migrated there to join the workforce opening up the vast oil fields of the Tarim Basin.
Some Uyghurs feel their culture is in danger of becoming extinct and nationalist groups have appeared to work to liberate the region from Chinese rule. In the last decade, new groups have appeared that are trying to rally the local population under the banner of Islam. One such group is the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement, a group that claims to speak for the rights of Muslims in Central Asia as well as in Xinjiang.
Recently, Chinese media have also mentioned the appearance of Hizb-ut Tahrir, a group that also aims to overthrow secular governments in inner Asia and replace them with a caliphate.
Chinese officials have not yet said who was responsible for the August 4 attack, one of the boldest in the region in years. But Chinese authorities have enthusiastically pursued the crackdown on separatists in the XUAR since the start of this year, though their campaign has often been overshadowed internationally by events in Tibet.