China grenade attack kills 16 police

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The Independent Online

China was hit today by a "suspected terrorist attack" just days before the Beijing Olympic Games. A grenade assault killed 16 police officers in the troubled western Xinjiang region.

The Xinhua news agency said two assailants drove a truck towards exercising border police officers in Kashgar, home of many Uighur people resentful of Chinese control on the region.

"The two attackers got off the lorry after the vehicle veered to hit on a roadside wire pole," said the English-language report. "They threw two grenades to the barracks, causing explosion. They also hacked the policemen with knives."

Sixteen police were killed, and another 16 wounded.

Local police suspect it was a "terrorist attack", said the report.

Xinjiang's largely Muslim Uighurs have been a focus of China's stringent nationwide security in the run-up to the Games. Officials have said militants seeking an independent "East Turkestan" homeland are among the biggest threats.

Police "got clues suggesting that the 'East Turkestan Islamic Movement' planned to make terrorist attacks during Aug. 1-8, just ahead of the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing," Xinhua reported.

Many Uighurs resent Chinese controls on religion and of the expanding ethnic Han Chinese presence in Xinjiang, a region rich in natural gas. Some Uighur groups seek an independent homeland, and China has said militants have forged ties with al Qaeda, Hizb ut-Tahrir and other violent groups.

Kashgar is a heavily Muslim market city of some 200,000 in Xinjiang's south. The Olympic relay torch passed through there in June under intense security. Officials there contacted by telephone gave no more details.

Senior Colonel Tian Yixiang, China's military officer in charge of Olympics security, said on Friday that "East Turkestan terrorist groups" were the biggest threat to Games security.

Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher for the monitoring group Human Rights Watch who has long studied Xinjiang, said the attack appeared to reflect rising volatility there despite years of harsh security measures.

"This is the most serious incident recorded in years," Bequelin said by telephone. "Ahead of the Olympics, it is a very powerful symbolic attack because security in Xinjiang is at an all-time high."

China has said it foiled terrorist plots targeting the Olympics and in the first six months of the year police detained dozens of people in Xinjiang for plotting to sabotage the Games, according to state media.

In March, authorities said they foiled an attempted attack onboard a flight to Beijing from Urumqi, the regional capital of Xinjiang.

But Beijing also recently denied claims by a group calling itself the Turkistan Islamic Party that it set off a series of bus bombings around the country.

Human rights critics and exiled Uighurs have said Beijing has exaggerated the threat of violence in Xinjiang and stirred discontent by extending the Han Chinese presence there. Uighurs now make up slightly less than half of Xinjiang's 20 million people, according to official statistics.

"This incident reflects the tensions and volatility in the region," said Bequelin.