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Separatism, terrorism link to Xinjiang riots doubtful: analysts

China has pointed the finger at Uighur separatists and terrorists for the recent deadly unrest in its Muslim-populated far northwest, but experts question how real those threats are.

world Updated: Jul 12, 2009 09:33 IST

China has pointed the finger at Uighur separatists and terrorists for the recent deadly unrest in its Muslim-populated far northwest, but experts question how real those threats are.

While many of the Xinjiang region's eight million Muslim Uighurs feel anger at perceived repression under Chinese rule, there is very little evidence to show this has created organised, dangerous opposition, they say.

No sooner had the unrest ended than the government of Xinjiang declared it had solid evidence the World Uighur Congress, led by exiled dissident Rebiya Kadeer, was behind the violence, charges she denies.

China's Politburo also blamed the "three forces" of extremism, separatism and terrorism for the situation in Xinjiang.

"This is a technique that has been used by Beijing for a long time, and that consists in blaming everything that happens in Xinjiang on Uighur exiles," said Thierry Kellner, researcher at the Brussels Institute of Contemporary Studies.

"It's quite a simple way to absolve one's own mistakes."

The unrest began on July 5 when thousands of Uighurs took to the streets of Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi, in anger over the deaths of two Uighurs in an ethnically charged brawl at a factory in southern China.

Beijing says 184 people died in the "riots", while exiled Uighurs have accused security forces of over-reacting to peaceful protests with deadly force.

China has long linked Uighur dissidents to Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda terrorist organisation.

In the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, Washington finally agreed to a request from China and listed a Uighur group called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as a terrorist organisation.

But, despite the United Nations also listing the ETIM as a terrorist group, Western experts see no signs that terrorist cells operate in Xinjiang, where Uighurs are Sunni and practise a moderate form of Islam.

They say that during the unrest in Urumqi, no Uighur was seen holding up a copy of the Koran or shouting "Allahu Akbar", and the government has shown no evidence of Uighurs using bombs or military weapons.

Jean-Philippe Beja, a China expert at the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China in Hong Kong, said Islamic militant groups likely had some tenuous links to Xinjiang's Uighurs.

Other analysts point to the presence of some Uighurs in Waziristan in the northeast of Pakistan, while the United States held a group of Uighurs at Guantanamo Bay before declaring them not to be enemy combatants.

"They have contacts, but do they have networks in place? I don't really believe that," Beja said.

China has also blamed violence in Xinjiang leading up to last year's Beijing Olympics on ETIM, including one incident that saw 17 policemen killed four days before the start of the Games.

But Kellner said Chinese authorities had fabricated the dangers of the ETIM.

"We don't know how this movement is organised, very few attacks can be attributed to it, and possibly none," he said.

Analysts say China has used its fight against so-called terrorism to justify repressive policies to quash any form of dissent in Xinjiang.

Authorities said 1,300 people were arrested in 2008 there for putting Chinese state security in danger.

In the United States, some lawmakers are pushing for a review of the ETIM as a terrorist organisation, saying US authorities have relied on intelligence from Beijing to make its determination.

Sean Roberts, an expert on Uighurs at George Washington University, testified to a US Congress hearing on the issue that he had never heard of ETIM until its blacklisting.

"It is difficult to justify the allegations that ETIM is a sophisticated and dangerous terrorist organisation with links to Al-Qaeda. And it is perfectly reasonable to assume that the organisation no longer exists at all," Roberts said.