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    Greater China
     Mar 14, 2008
'Terror' attack a warning shot for Beijing
By Fong Tak-ho

HONG KONG - Chinese authorities announced they have recently successfully thwarted an attempt by Xinjiang "terrorists" to hijack a Beijing-bound passenger airplane and crash it, suspiciously, into the Chinese capital. This happened when the National People's Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) are convening their annual sessions. This also happened five months before the commencement of the Beijing Summer Olympic Games.

Chinese authorities linked the attempted attack to the independence movement in the remote northwestern Xinjiang Autonomous Region, where some people from the Uyghur Muslim minority are hostile to Beijing's rule. The two "terrorists" subdued by the aircrew of a Southern Airlines flight from Urumqi, Xinjiang's provincial capital, to Beijing, are reportedly Uyghur, with one

identified by Chinese media as a 19-year-old girl.

Moreover, the attempted attack occurred on the 11th anniversary of a bus explosion in Beijing near Zhongnanhai, the headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and China's central government. The overseas-based East Turkestan Islamic Movement, now internationally identified as a terrorist group, took responsibility.

From all this, analysts say the timing of the attempted attack is by no means coincidental. In fact, it was highly planned and designed to deal a severe blow and deliver a clear warning to the Chinese government.

On March 9, Xinjiang governor Nur Bekri said the Beijing-bound flight took off from Urumqi at 10:35 am on March 7. But the aircraft eventually had to make an emergency landing at 12:40 pm at Lanzhou, the provincial capital of Gunxu in northwest China, after the crew subdued a woman and her male companion who "attempted to cause an air disaster".

Beri broke the news at a press conference on the sidelines of the NPC annual session which started on March 5. The NPC annual session is always deemed one of the most politically sensitive periods of the year in China, as the country's top lawmakers gather in Beijing under the spotlight of media from home and abroad.

The bus explosion near Zhongnanhai 11 years ago also happened during the NPC annual session. Also on March 7, during the rush hour at about 6 pm, a homemade bomb exploded on a bus driving toward Zhongnanhai, injuring 11 passengers.

A source close to Xinjiang authorities told the Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity that Chinese police were also looking into whether the suspects were aiming at causing damage at Beijing Capital International Airport's third terminal which just started operation on February 29. The new terminal, bigger than all five terminals at London's Heathrow, is built to help the Chinese capital expand its air-passenger handling capacity as it prepares for the Games.

According to mainland media reports, the prime suspect in the recent hijacking attempt, a 19-year-old ethnic Uyghur girl from Xinjiang, was caught trying to set off a bomb on the airplane. Reports said flight attendants were alarmed by the smell of petroleum and traced it back to the girl who had tried to cover the smell with strong perfume.

These reports, most of them still unconfirmed by the authorities, suggest that the suspects were caught trying to ignite the fuel in the bathroom. The 19-year-old is one of an unconfirmed number of suspects that may include another young woman.

The source mentioned above also said the police were probing the suspects to learn if they were trained outside China.

In another sign possibly indicating that Beijing is facing security threats from Xinjiang's pro-independence elements ahead of the Olympics, Xinjiang party chief Wang Lequan said regional police destroyed a terrorist hideout, shooting dead two and arresting 15 others on January 27. Wang said they were plotting to create some "chaos" in Beijing during the Olympics.

One year ago, in January 2007, Xinjiang police said that they had destroyed a terrorist camp in the region and killed 18 terrorists. They believed that the training camp was run by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a group that the United Nations in 2002 labeled a terrorist organization. It is also said that more than 1,000 members of the movement have been trained by al-Qaeda.

Pro-Xinjiang independence elements often deliberately link their activities to freedom of religious belief. For example, after the Beijing bus explosion 11 years ago, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement claimed it was revenge for Beijing's suppression of the Muslim independence movement. Therefore, Beijing must exercise caution in dealing with the recent attempted attack this time, and separate terrorism from religion. If the Muslim world is offended, China could have a high price to pay.

Some rights groups have cautioned that China's warnings of a series of separatist threats could be part of a deliberate campaign aimed at silencing all voices of dissent ahead of the Olympics.

Analysts have called on the Chinese government to investigate any possible loopholes in the security measures in place at the Xinjiang airport. The two suspected terrorists were reported to have successfully carried flammable liquid on board the plane. Chinese leaders have launched an accountability system, but it is still uncertain whether any security officials or local government cadres will be held accountable for the incident.

In response, the Civil Aviation Administration of China, the country's aviation regulator, said no liquid would be allowed on board domestic airplanes during the Olympics.

At a press conference in Beijing on March 12, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said China is one of the safest places in the world, despite the recent incident. It is hoped this will remain so.

Fong Tak-ho is managing editor of the Chinese version of Asia Times Online.

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