China said yesterday that Muslim separatists in Xinjiang have killed more than 160 people in the past decade, but critics dismissed the claim as an attempt to justify its rule over a crucial Central Asian region.
Senior police officers were quoted in the media as saying the gravest terrorist threat right now was in Xinjiang, where separatists maintain ties with al-Qaeda and are attacking "soft targets."
"They have not only jeopardized China but also posed a threat to regional security and stability," said Zhao Yongchen, deputy director of the public security ministry's Anti-Terrorism Bureau, according to the Xinhua news agency.
Xinhua said separatists wishing to establish an independent East Turkestan in Xinjiang have committed 260 terrorist attacks since 1995, or roughly one every two weeks, killing 160 and injuring 440.
They now use poison and bombs to attack kindergartens and schools as part of a shift in overall strategy, Zhao told a conference on law issues in Beijing.
"The specific terrorist attack targets have shifted away from `hard targets' -- government or military facilities -- to `soft targets,' namely those less defended public places," he was quoted as saying.
The data may be inflated as the 260 incidents are likely to include several cases that would not normally be considered terrorist acts, according to Nicolas Becquelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights in China. He said Beijing's statements on terrorism in Xinjiang were an opportunistic attempt to silence foreign criticism of its rule in the region.
"They are a way to legitimize the very grave and serious violations of ethnic minorities' rights in Xinjiang, including religious freedom," he said. "The government uses terrorism as an excuse or an argument so that foreign countries don't look into what is happening in Xinjiang."
China sees Xinjiang as an invaluable asset because of its crucial strategic location near Central Asi, as well as its large reserves of oil and gas.
In the late 1990s China rarely described Xinjiang separatists as "terrorists," but that word has become part of the official Bei-jing vocabulary since Sept. 11, Becquelin said.
In an indication that China remains keen to link its problems in Xinjiang with the global war on terror, Zhao claimed the separatists have cross-border ties with terrorist organizations in Central Asia.
"They have close ties and even align with terrorist groups including the Taliban, the Uzbekistan Islamic Liberation Movement and al-Qaeda," he said.
China appears to have stepped up a crackdown on Xinjiang's Turkic-speaking Uighur minority as the government prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of its annexation of the region on Oct.1.
Law enforcerment personnel warned that more attacks were to be expected, according to the China Daily.
"A handful of heinous terrorists are still at large," said Feng Xiguang, spokesman for the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau.
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