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China launches anti-terror drive after bombing

Saturday - 5/24/2014, 7:20am  ET

In this Friday, May 23, 2014 photo, paramilitary policemen on their armored vehicles parade on a street in Urumqi, China's northwestern region of Xinjiang. Authorities on Saturday announced the first arrest in a bombing in China's Muslim northwest and said they were launching a yearlong anti-terrorism crackdown. (AP Photo/Kyodo News) JAPAN OUT, CREDIT MANDATORY

Associated Press

URUMQI, China (AP) -- Authorities announced a security crackdown Saturday in China's Muslim northwest after a deadly bombing raised questions about whether tightening Beijing's grip might be feeding anti-Chinese anger and a rise of organized terrorism.

Thursday's bombing at a vegetable market in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang region, killed at least 43 people and left the region's ethnic Chinese on edge.

"We don't know why there have been explosions, but we are definitely worried about personal safety," said Luo Guiyou, a member of China's Han ethnic majority who manages an auto parts store.

Police announced names of five people blamed for the attack and said they were part of a "terrorist gang." Based on their names, all appeared to be Uighurs, the region's most populous Muslim minority. Police said four were killed in the bombing and the fifth captured Thursday night.

An anti-terrorism campaign with Xinjiang "as the major battlefield" will target religious extremist groups, underground gun workshops and "terrorist training camps," the official Xinhua News Agency said. "Terrorists and extremists will be hunted down and punished."

Beijing blames unrest on extremists with foreign ties, but Uighur activists say tensions are fueled by an influx of migrants from China's dominant Han ethnic group and discriminatory government policies.

"The violence is an indication that people are willing to take more drastic measures to express their opposition," said David Brophy, a Xinjiang historian at the University of Sydney.

A heavyhanded response might backfire by inciting sympathy from Central Asian radicals about "the plight of Muslims in Xinjiang," said Ahmed A.S. Hashim, a terrorism expert at Singapore's Nanyang Technical University.

"In fact, groups like al-Qaeda and others are now beginning to think that China could be a new oppressor of the Muslim world," he said.

In Beijing, the national capital, police announced they were cancelling vacations for officers and would step up patrols at train stations, schools, hospitals and markets.

A measure under which passengers at stations in central Beijing are required to undergo security checks will be extended to three additional stations, the city government said. Passengers at all stations already are required to submit handbags and parcels for X-ray examination under rules imposed ahead of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

Thursday's violence was the deadliest single attack in Xinjiang's recent history, and the latest of several that have targeted civilians in contrast to a past pattern of targeting police and officials. It was the highest death toll since several days of rioting in Urumqi in 2009 between Uighurs and members of China's dominant Han ethnic group left nearly 200 people dead.

On Saturday, paramilitary police with rifles stood every 20 meters (70 feet) along streets around the vegetable market, which was closed to vehicle traffic.

Li Shengli, who was in Urumqi on a business trip from Shanghai, brought three stems of yellow mums.

"I am here to remember the dead," he said. He was quickly pulled away by a propaganda official who warned him not to talk to reporters.

The family of one victim, Lu Xiangwang, a 58-year-old driving teacher, said they were waiting to receive his body.

In his parents' apartment near the market, Lu's mother sat sobbing on a couch, surrounded by relatives. A neighbor, Ji Jinzhu, said Lu spent the night before the attack at the apartment to look after his ill father.

"He was hit by an explosive just moments after he stepped outside this residential compound into the street," said Ji. "The father is feeling very guilty because had it not been for his illness, his son would not have had to come to take care of him."

Ji, 80, said he was shopping in the crowded market Thursday morning with his wife when the two off-road vehicles raced into the street.

"When they passed me, I heard explosions and saw flames going up into the sky and smoke filling up the air," he said.

An Associated Press reporter who visited a Uighur neighborhood was followed by 11 uniformed police officers who told him to leave.

The influx of ethnic Han Chinese has left Uighurs feeling marginalized in their homeland and excluded from decision-making.

Beijing has responded with an overwhelming security presence and additional restrictions on the ability of Uighurs to travel and on their culture and religious practices.

Recent attacks show increased audaciousness and deliberateness. They are aimed at the public instead of police and government targets. But their planning and weapons still are relatively simple, suggesting a lack of foreign support.

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