Apologise, Afghanistan tells China after busting its espionage cell in Kabul
Afghanistan has busted a 10-member Chinese module operating a terror cell in the capital city of Kabul, according to diplomats and security officials in the West Asian country. The crackdown has come as a huge embarrassment for Beijing, which has been trying to persuade the Ashraf Ghani government to hush up the case, people familiar with the matter in Kabul and New Delhi said.
The 10 Chinese citizens, detained recently in this connection by Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) on charges of espionage and running a terror cell, are believed to be linked to China’s spy agency, Ministry of State Security. The crackdown by the NDS started on 10 December.
This is the first time in years that Chinese nationals have been caught spying in Afghanistan where the country was looking at rapidly expanding its influence even as the US withdraws its troops. At least two of the 10 Chinese nationals were in contact with the Haqqani Network, the terrorist group that doubles as the sword arm of the Taliban, a senior diplomat in Kabul said.
President Ashraf Ghani has been briefed about the detentions and has authorised First Vice President Amrullah Saleh, a former chief of the Afghan intelligence agency, to oversee the investigation and engage the Chinese in view of the sensitivities involved, the people cited in the first instance added.
Amrullah Saleh has held a meeting with the Chinese envoy to Kabul, Wang Yu to brief him about the detention. Saleh is learnt to have indicated that the Afghan government could consider a pardon for the Chinese spies if Beijing submits a formal apology that admits to the violation of international norms and a betrayal of Kabul’s trust.
Otherwise, Amrullah Saleh is believed to have told the Chinese ambassador, the Afghan government would go ahead with criminal proceedings. One of those detained, Li Yangyang, according to a counter-terror official in Kabul, has been operating for the Chinese Intelligence since July-August . He was arrested by the Afghan NDS on 10 December from his house in western Kabul neighbourhood of Kart-e-Char.
The NDS team seized arms, ammunition and Ketamine powder, a recreational drug , from his residence when the first round of raids were carried out on 10 December. NDS officials who have questioned Li have reported that he had been gathering information about al Qaeda, Taliban and Uyghurs in Kunar and Badakhshan provinces, according to this counter-terror official. A Chinese woman was the second person to be arrested. Sha Hung, who runs a restaurant in Kabul’s Shirpur was also arrested the same day.
“From her place, NDS recovered explosive material and other incriminating items,” the counter-terror official said.
He added that Li and Sha have been in contact with the Haqqani Network
Eight more Chinese nationals were subsequently arrested.
Investigators, a diplomat in New Delhi said, were still trying to ascertain the precise activities of the espionage ring and any possible linkage to Pakistan’s deep state. One view within the Afghan security establishment is that the detainees were creating a fake East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) module in Afghanistan to entrap ETIM operatives in Afghanistan.
ETIM is a small Islamic separatist group alleged to be active in Xinjiang province, home to China’s ethnic minority Uighur Muslims. Its founder Hasan Mahsum, an Uyghur from Xinjiang’s Kashgar region, was shot dead by Pakistani soldiers in 2003. Rights groups say China uses the ETIM threat as an excuse to impose restrictions on Uyghurs and discredit human rights activists outside China. The United States last month revoked the terror tag slapped on ETIM although the group continues to be designated by the UN Security Council.