Members of a Muslim minority in western China say they are being discouraged or barred from air travel amid an Olympic security clampdown that Beijing says is aimed at terrorist threats.
“The security is really intense now. They went through everything I have,” said a Uighur produce trader who gave only his first name, Hasmat, after a body search at the airport in Urumqi, capital of the mostly Muslim Xinjiang region.
Hasmat said he was required to obtain letters from firms he planned to visit before he could obtain a ticket from a Chinese airline for a business trip to the city of Xian.
He said he was told the requirement was imposed by the government because of Olympic security.
“It is because I am Uighur. It is unfair,” said Hasmat, who said he has moved about freely in the past. “We support the Olympics too.”
China says it has broken up at least a dozen terrorist cells planning attacks targeting the Olympics, including an alleged failed plot by a Uighur woman to blow up a plane flying from Urumqi to Beijing in March.
Uighurs, who number more than 8 million in Xinjiang, are a Turkic-speaking central Asian people who have long chafed under Chinese control.
The government says Uighur separatists seeking an independent homeland want to target the Games, but rights groups accuse Beijing of exaggerating the threat in order to stifle dissent in Xinjiang.
The Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, an exile group opposed to China’s control of Xinjiang, a vast region of harsh deserts and majestic mountain ranges, says many Uighurs are being barred from planes outright.
“They cannot buy the tickets. They are being told they are sold out,” Dilxat Raxit, the group’s spokesman, told reporters.
He said the restrictions were especially tight for travel to Beijing.
In one case, he said, Muslims were incensed when authorities forced a young Uighur woman to undergo a strip search before boarding a train in Kashgar, a historic Silk Road oasis city near the Pakistan border.
“This is part of a pattern of discrimination against Uighurs by Chinese authorities,” he said.
An official at Xinjiang police headquarters in Urumqi denied the allegations, and a spokeswoman for the Civil Aviation Administration of China said there were no restrictions on air travel by Uighurs.
“That’s impossible. As far as I know, there is no such regulation,” she told reporters.
But on a recent day at Urumqi airport, only a handful of Uighur travelers could be seen amid hundreds of ethnic Han Chinese who queued for flights.
A Uighur woman in her 20s in Kashgar told reporters she had twice been denied a train ticket to Urumqi to start training for a new job.
Earlier this year, she said, police had confiscated her passport for “safe-keeping” — a tactic that exile Uighur groups say is aimed at preventing them from joining terror groups abroad.
“Many of us are now just forgetting any plans we had and waiting for all of this to end,” she said.