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China's Uighurs In Spotlight After Attack

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

This week, the Olympic torch will take its triumphant homecoming tour through Beijing before the games begin on Friday.

Two thousand miles away, in far western China, a dramatically different scene - riot police are out in force in the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar. They're stopping cars and buses, searching bags, and according to exiled dissident groups, police are rounding up and beating local Muslims.

The security clampdown comes after a bold daytime attack on Monday. According to Chinese authorities, two men armed with knives and explosives ambushed a police unit, killing 16 officers and wounding 16 more. Chinese authorities call it a terrorist attack, and they arrested two young men at the scene.

Washington Post correspondent Jill Drew is in Kashgar. And Jill, what else have you learned about what happened in this attack on Monday?

Ms. JILL DREW (Correspondent, Washington Post): Well, Kashgar officials met with reporters today and described a little more fully what happened. They said two Uighur men ambushed a unit of the paramilitary border patrol here as they left their barracks on Monday morning around 8:00 a.m. for a regular morning jog.

The two men drove a dump truck at high speed into about 70 members of the patrol. And then after the truck slammed into a pole, the driver jumped out and hurled a homemade explosive device into the pack of wounded soldiers. The second man lost his arm when he attempted to light another device and throw it into the barracks area.

The two men, when they were arrested at the scene, the police recovered a homemade gun, some knives, and they also said today that they found that the men had left wills in which they said protecting their religion was more precious than their own lives and that they were vowing a holy war against China.

BLOCK: Now, you mentioned that these men were Uighurs. We should explain, these are the ethnic group, Uighurs, mostly Muslim, and a great many Uighurs in this part of China, in the far west.

Ms. DREW: That's right. And it used to be that Uighurs were overwhelmingly the dominant population here. But now many Han Chinese have migrated to the area, and so experts say it may be about 50/50.

BLOCK: And that's been a source of a great deal of tension, I gather, much as in Tibet, with Han Chinese going into Tibet; same thing going on there in Xinjiang.

Ms. DREW: Yeah. The kind of uneasy relationship between the two has actually gone on for centuries. It has been most recently exacerbated by what they call the great western development program, where they encourage Han Chinese to go into places like Xinjiang and like Tibet and to start their own businesses and to create new lives.

And many Uighurs believe that they have been disadvantaged by the influx of the Han Chinese, and also that their freedom of religion has been restricted, so that is a very sore spot for many of them.

BLOCK: Now, the Chinese government is blaming a Uighur separatist group for this attack, called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. What can you tell us about that group?

Ms. DREW: There's a lot of controversy outside of China about how big and how sophisticated the East Turkestan Islamic Movement is. After September 11th, China pushed to have the East Turkestan Islamic Movement listed as a terrorist organization. And the United States did agree to list it as a terrorist organization.

Terrorism experts who have been in Kashgar and in the Xinjiang province, though, say that there is little evidence that this group is a highly significant, highly organized terrorist organization. The East Turkistan Islamic Movement has not claimed responsibility, and officials here have not yet formally linked the group.

BLOCK: This separatist group is saying, I believe, we shouldn't be part of China at all.

Ms. DREW: Yes. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement has fought for an independent Islamic state. But many Uighurs who I have spoken with say they don't support the idea of an independent state. Rather, they just would like to have more autonomy and recognition of more rights in Xinjiang.

BLOCK: What else are you hearing from people on the streets about these attacks and what followed the crackdown there?

Ms. DREW: I think people are very frightened. Today, as we were walking around, many Uighurs really didn't want to talk to foreign media and certainly wouldn't allow their names to be used as we were trying to talk to them about what had happened and how they felt. We observed some special police doing house-to-house searches in the old city of Kashgar, which is a primarily Uighur neighborhood.

BLOCK: Is there a visible police presence throughout the city as well?

Ms. DREW: Yes. Police surround government buildings, especially the hospital where the wounded officials are. You see many patrols driving down the streets.

BLOCK: We've been talking with Washington Post correspondent Jill Drew, who's in far western China in the city of Kashgar in Xinjiang Province. Jill, thanks very much.

Ms. DREW: Thank you, Melissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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