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China clamps down on ethnic violence in west

The Irish Times, 18 August 2011

CHINA HAS sent special security commandos to Xinjiang as part of a two-month “strike hard” campaign against what Beijing sees as violent Islamist separatists following fresh outbreaks of deadly ethnic violence in the troubled western region.

“The frequency with which terrorist activities are carried out in the region is rising, and it must be curbed. Public security forces around Xinjiang will uncover the masterminds and organisers behind such activities,” the Public Security Bureau of Xinjiang said in a statement.

Last month, tensions between Muslim Uighurs and ethnic Han Chinese boiled over again. Two knife attacks, as well as clashes between Uighurs and police, resulted in the deaths of more than 30 people in the resource-rich and strategically vital province bordering Pakistan, Afghanistan and a number of Central Asian states.

The campaign is to focus on “detecting and eliminating unsafe elements”, severely punish criminals and “crack down on illegal religious activities”. Any suspicious activity would be investigated and the trial process would be speeded up to deal “even more harshly” with defendants.

The largest province in China, Xinjiang accounts for 16 per cent of the country’s land area. For hundreds of years the province has been difficult to rule.

Security officers are now set to comb Xinjiang’s cities 24 hours a day, particularly public areas such as squares, station markets, business districts and downtown areas, carrying out identity checks and searching people and vehicles.

The campaign began on August 11th and will last until October 15th, after the National Day holiday.

This month, Beijing sent its elite Snow Leopard Commandos to Xinjiang. The special force, part of the People’s Armed Police, oversaw the anti-terrorist element of the running of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and is trained in counter-terrorism measures such as riot-control, the stopping of hijackings and bomb disposal.

“Those who publicise and spread violent terrorism or extreme religious thought will be severely punished. The public organs will investigate and crack down on illegal activities such as producing, selling, storing and transmitting illegal publicity materials. Meanwhile, the public security organs will also combat various online crimes,” the statement ran.

A simmering separatist campaign in the region has occasionally boiled over into violence in the past 20 years. The Han Chinese see Xinjiang as an inalienable part of the territory of China. Beijing blames separatist Uighur Muslims from the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, who it says trained in militant camps in Pakistan, for the violence.

Human rights groups believe Beijing exaggerates the threat from militants to justify harsh controls.

The campaign is similar to one implemented not long after the deadly riots of July 2009, when local Uighurs savagely turned on Han Chinese in Urumqi – an incident which led to deadly reprisals by Han against Uighurs a few days later. The riots resulted in the deaths of nearly 200 people, most of them ethnic Han Chinese, and 1,700 were injured.

Xinjiang’s eight million Turkic-speaking Uighurs are a Turkic Muslim ethnic group which has close linguistic and cultural links with Central Asia, and is quite distinct from China’s majority Han.

Uighurs see Xinjiang as their homeland and resent the millions of Han Chinese who have poured into the region in recent decades.