Separatists blamed after 16 policemen killed in China

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Sixteen policemen have been killed in a raid on a police barracks in what the Chinese believe was the worst terrorist attack in China for years. Two men rammed a lorry into the barracks in the city of Kashgar in Xinjiang, the Muslim-majority north-western region. The assault, coming just four days before the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, left a further 16 police officers injured.

Muslim separatist militants have waged a low-level rebellion against Chinese rule for years, but if the attack is confirmed as the work of a group such as the outlawed East Turkestan Islamic Movement (Etim), it would be the most brazen attack yet on Chinese soil.

Kashgar is just 75 miles from the border with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan. The assault took place at 8am, when the attackers drove their truck into a group of policemen performing their morning exercises outside the Yiquan hotel, about 100 metres from their border patrol post.

The truck hit a telegraph pole and the two attackers jumped out and threw homemade grenades at the barracks and attacked the officers with knives. Fourteen police officers died on the spot and two others died on the way to hospital.

Police arrested the two attackers, one of whom had a leg injury. The official Xinhua news agency reported they were two Uighur men aged 28 and 33. Police found home-made explosives, hand guns and four knives in the vehicle."Everything is under investigation at the moment," said a spokesman for the Kashgar Public Security Bureau. "It is not appropriate to discuss anything now but we will reveal the results of our investigation later."

Xinjiang is home to eight million Muslim Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic group which shares linguistic and cultural bonds with central Asia and where China gets much of its oil and gas. Many Uighurs are unhappy with the growing economic and political power of ethnic Han Chinese and reject what they see as cultural imperialism from Beijing.

The Chinese authorities say that separatist Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang are violent Islamist fundamentalists trying to cut the province off from Chinese rule. Rights groups regularly complain about how the Uighurs are treated and accuse Beijing of using its support for the US "war on terror" against al-Qa'ida as an excuse for clamping down on their activities. "The ploy of the bloody crime resembles some previous terrorist attempts carried out by 'Eastern Turkistan' separatists, which were foiled by Chinese police," Li Wei, director of the Centre for Counter-Terrorism Studies, told Xinhua.

Security forces are on high alert, particularly since warnings from at least one militant group that it would disrupt the Games. More than 100,000 security officials have been deployed for the Games, which run until 24 August.

Tian Yixiang, a senior People's Liberation Army commander and the Olympic security chief, said Uighur separatists were a big worry alongside Tibetan independence forces and members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement. China says it has foiled five "terrorism groups" plotting attacks on the Olympics and detained scores of people in Xinjiang for plotting to sabotage the Games.Last month, two Islamic extremists were executed after a raid on what the Chinese said was a terrorist camp in the Pamir mountains in January 2007. Authorities claimed to have killed 18 members of Etim during the raid and arrested 17. A Uighur group claimed responsibility for bus blasts in Shanghai and Kunming which killed several people last month.

The largest province in China, Xinjiang has been a difficult territory to rule for hundreds of years. At least nine people were killed in 1997 during a crackdown on a demonstration by Muslim separatists in Yining to the north.