Blasts, gunfire kill at least eight in China (Lead)

August 10th, 2008 - 4:37 pm ICT by IANS  

Beijing, Aug 10 (DPA) Several explosions and sporadic rifle fire rocked Kuqa county in north-western China’s restive Xinjiang region Sunday morning, leaving at least eight people dead and four injured, state-run Xinhua news agency said. The explosions occurred between about 2.30 a.m. and 4.00 a.m. in downtown Kuqa, a county with a population of about 400,000 located about 740 km from the Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi, a witness said.

The dead included seven of the attackers and security guard, with two police officers and two civilians injured, the agency said.

It quoted police as saying one captured suspect told them 15 people were involved in the attacks.

Police said “suicide bombers” attacked offices of the local government and the public security bureau.

They recorded 12 separate bombings in the county using devices made from bent pipes, gas canisters and liquid gas tanks, the agency said.

A foreigner in Kuqa told DPA via telephone that there were nearly 20 strong explosions and flashes of light were visible, but no fire or smoke.

He said an aircraft flew overhead before the blasts occurred.

“The rifle fire began a half hour after the first explosion,” the witness said. It was followed within minutes by explosions.

The Xinjiang region is known for unrest and is home to eight million Muslim Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking ethnic group that has opposed Chinese rule.

China has identified independence-seeking Uighur groups from Xinjiang as one of the biggest potential terrorist threats during the Olympics. The government has accused Uighur groups of terrorism in the past.

Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the Munich-based group of exiled Uighurs, World Uighur Congress, told DPA that people in the area said explosions were heard in different parts of the county.

“Local Uighurs said there were bombings at government offices, People’s Armed Police (the paramilitary) units, as well as police stations. No civilian places were bombed,” said Raxit.

The county was under military lockdown, with residents banned from leaving their homes, said Raxit.

The foreigner who spoke to dpa also said neither Chinese, Uighur or foreign guests at the hotel where he is staying were allowed to leave.

The blasts happened just two days after the Aug 8-24 Olympic Games opened in Beijing on Friday. It also came nearly a week after two Uighur men in the Xinjiang city of Kashgar threw explosives at and stabbed 16 paramilitary officers to death and injured 16 others during their morning exercises Monday.

Xinhua quoted Xinjiang’s top Communist Party official as calling Monday’s attack a terrorist act and that the Uighur separatist group East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) was suspected.

Neil Fergus, an Australia-based security expert advising Beijing on Olympic security, said the blasts in Xinjiang Sunday were not unexpected because Chinese officials had received intelligence that ETIM would carry out attacks during the Olympics.

But it was unclear whether ETIM was behind the latest bombings.

After the 2001 attacks in the United States - and after Washington and Beijing began cooperating on anti-terrorism - the group was listed by both countries as an international terrorist group.

China has said that ETIM members were trained by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan and several members were detained in Guantanamo Bay.

But some foreign scholars who have studied the Xinjiang region previously questioned whether the group really exists.

“They do have the hallmarks of being genuine,” said Fergus, chief executive of Intelligent Risks, who was director of intelligence for the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

He had previously said he did not believe ETIM has any network in Beijing.

“We’re hoping of course this theory we have that they have no impact on the Olympics is correct,” said Fergus.

Regardless of who carried out the bombings, Raxit said they reflect deep-seated resentment against China’s iron rule in the region historically populated by Uighur Muslims, not Han Chinese.

In the run-up to the Olympics, police in Xinjiang arrested 10,000 Uighurs, Raxit said.

“We’re opposed to both sides using weapons, but China doen’t give Uighurs any way to peacefully protest. Everything is suppressed. Under this situation, it forces Uighurs to take up arms. There’s no foreign forces influencing this,” said Raxit.

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