(Reuters) – Chinese security forces have broken up a “terrorist” cell in the restive far western region of Xinjiang, an official said on Thursday, nearly a year after ethnic violence in the regional capital left around 200 dead.
Ministry of Public Security spokesman Wu Heping told a brief news conference that more than 10 members of a “terrorist” group had been rounded up who were planning attacks across Xinjiang, and explosives, knives and other equipment seized.
“The breaking up of this large terrorist group once again proves that the East Turkestan Islamic Movement is the major terror threat facing China at present and henceforward,” Wu said.
Exile groups and many Uighurs, a Muslin people native to the region, refer to Xinjiang as East Turkestan. Energy-rich Xinjiang is strategically located on China’s borders of Afghanistan, Pakistan and several Central Asian states.
Wu identified the two ringleaders as Abudourexiti Abulaiti, 42, and Yiming Semaier, 33.
“China’s public security bodies will resolutely support and put into effect U.N. Security Council resolutions, will strike severely against terrorist activities, and earnestly maintain social stability,” Wu added. He did not take questions.
The group had been planning a series of attacks in the Xinjiang cities of Kashgar, Hotan and Aksu, but their plans were thwarted and some of them fled, Wu said, reading from a prepared statement.
But Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the exiled World Uyghur Congress, said the timing of the announcement was suspicious, coming so soon before the one-year anniversary of violent unrest in Xinjiang’s regional capital Urumqi.
“China has a political motive in choosing the period before the July 5 anniversary to publicize this. The purpose is to raise pressure on Uighurs,” he said by telephone.
“The evidence given by the Chinese is all one-sided, with no independent verification and no credible proof,” he added.
At least two of the group had smuggled themselves out of China and were repatriated last December, Wu said.
Though he did not say where they had been extradited from, Cambodia repatriated to China a group of 20 Uighurs in December who they said had illegally entered the country.
China is Cambodia’s biggest investor, having poured more than $4 billion in foreign direct investment into the country.
While overseas, these men swore allegiance to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, listed by the United Nations in 2002 as a “terrorist” organization with links to al Qaeda, and received financial support and other aid from the group, Wu said.
Beijing often blames what it calls violent separatist groups in Xinjiang for attacks on police or other government targets, saying they work with al Qaeda or Central Asian militants to bring about an independent state called East Turkestan.
Uighur exiles accuse China of whipping up the threat posed by armed separatists to justify harsh crackdowns in the region.
Next month marks the one-year anniversary of violent unrest in Xinjiang’s regional capital Urumqi, in which Uighurs attacked Han Chinese who sought revenge days later. The unrest left around 200 dead, mostly Hans.
Many Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking ethnic group, chafe under Chinese rule and resent an influx of Han Chinese workers from eastern and central China.
China’s replaced its top official in Xinjiang, the hardline Wang Lequan, in April.
While the Olympic Games were held in Beijing in 2008, there were at least three attacks against police and paramilitary troops near Xinjiang’s southern frontier city of Kashgar, which China attributed to Uighur separatists.
(Additional reporting by Lucy Hornby; Editing by Benjamin Kang Lim and Sanjeev Miglani)