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The Bombmakers of Aksu

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On 16 September the Chinese government claimed to have arrested six people in Aksu (a city in western Xinjiang) for making bombs. Two of the six – Seyitamut Obul and Tasin Mehmut – have Uighur names. Li Wei, the director of the Centre for Counterterrorism Studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, warned that ‘terrorists have gone underground to organise different forms of terror attacks in Xinjiang . . . such as the recent syringe attacks in the region and plotting bomb attacks.’ He went on to claim that the recovered explosives were to be used in car and suicide bombings. The timing of the arrests is suspiciously convenient: in the run up to the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic on 1 October, the government would like to show that it has the region under control.

It wouldn’t be the first time that such a politically convenient story proved difficult to corroborate. In January 2007, when the authorities were trumpeting their diligence in ensuring security for the 2008 Olympics, the Chinese Public Security Bureau announced that they had raided a terrorist training camp in the Pamir mountains in southern Xinjiang. According to official sources, 18 ‘terrorists’ were killed and another 17 captured.

However, Rafael Poch, a Spanish journalist who went to investigate the story, found no evidence of the camp. He was told that the incident stemmed from a conflict over mining rights. A Han Chinese businessman is said to have arrived with a police escort and informed the local people that he had bought the coal mine and it was now illegal for them to work it. During the protest that followed, according to Poch’s sources, a policeman was killed; a number of villagers fled into the mountains; the police pursued them by helicopter and shot them.

This version of events has still to be corroborated, but in outline it seems more plausible than the government’s account: disputes over land and access to water are a common source of hostility between Uighurs and Han. It may also be better to think of such incidents as arising from particular local resentments, rather than as highly politicised clashes between Uighurs and the (Han) Chinese government.

When two Uighur men threw explosives at a police station in Kashgar in July 2008,  the government claimed they were terrorists, members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. Another explanation is that the attackers had a particular grievance against the local police. Something similar may turn out to be the case with those arrested in Aksu – assuming they were even actually making bombs.

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