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Attacks In Western China Spur Fears, Suspicions

More than 25 people are dead after three attacks in the past 10 days, and the Chinese government says terrorists are to blame. The violence in China's far west has prompted extra-tight security across the country during the Beijing Olympics.

At the bazaar in Kucha, an oasis town north of the Taklamakan Desert on the old Silk Road, vendors peddle wares and shops have reopened after being shut because of multiple bombings over the weekend. A record store pumps out music of the Uighurs, the Turkic-speaking Muslim people that account for 80 percent of the local population.

Nearby, resident Zhang Xiaoping nurses his wounds. He says he went out to use a public latrine at 2:30 a.m. on Sunday when a bomb went off.


"I saw two people park a motorcycle next to this building. There was a package, about this big, on the back of the bike," Zhang says. "I thought this was strange and went over to check it out. The people who parked the motorcycle suddenly jumped into a red Volkswagen and sped off."

The package exploded, ripping a chunk out of the building, searing Zhang's legs and deafening him. He says he has no idea why anyone would attack his neighborhood.

About 30 explosions were heard in Kucha on Sunday, according to the county's propaganda chief, Zhang Guoling.

"The police shot and killed eight terrorists. They captured two, and two others blew themselves up," Zhang Guoling says. "The police rescued 13 trapped residents and seized 10 homemade bombs. Three suspects remain at large."

The bombings occurred in the wake of an Aug. 4 attack on a border police station in the city of Kashgar that left 16 police officers dead. On Tuesday, three security guards were stabbed to death at a roadside checkpoint near Kashgar.


China's government suspects that a separatist group called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement is behind much of the violence.

Li Wei, a counterterrorism expert at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, a government think tank in Beijing, notes that the attacks center on southern Xinjiang, which is mostly desert and very poor.

"ETIM's attack capabilities are currently limited to Xinjiang," Li says. "But one thing we know about terrorists is that while they may be few in number and primitive in their means, they can often achieve sensational results."

One result is maximum security across much of Xinjiang. At the railway station in Korla, the next big town over from Kucha, an announcer goes through a long list of items that passengers can't carry on the train, from hair dye to transmission fluid.

Many gas station owners say they are afraid of attacks, so drivers in Korla wait in long lines to buy gas at the few stations that dare to stay open. The roads are crammed with checkpoints, where police with submachine guns sit behind sandbags.

The problem, says one Uighur merchant, is that the security measures are largely and unfairly targeted at them. Fearing arrest, he requested that his name not be used.

"Where there is oppression, there will be resistance," the merchant says. "This is an ethnic minority region. Our customs should be respected. We should be trusted.

"Now it's like whatever bad things happen, it's always the minorities that get blamed."

He says Uighurs suffer because of discriminatory hiring practices, exploitation of Xinjiang's rich oil resources, and disrespect toward their Muslim faith.

Some Beijing hotels, for example, say off the record that police have ordered them to turn away Uighurs during the Olympic Games. The police deny it. The merchant says he knows where he's not welcome.

"I'd like to go see the Olympics in Beijing, but I won't have the opportunity," he says. "To put it bluntly, I'm not qualified."

If his people can't have independence, he says, at least they should have the equality the law promises them.

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