China blames `criminals' for bus bomb

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The Independent Online
TChina yesterday blamed "criminal elements" for the home-made bomb which exploded on a bus in a central shopping district last Friday. The national Chinese media, which often operates a news blackout after such incidents, did not report the explosion, but Peking television and radio news and the capital's newspapers carried brief details, calling on citizens to be vigilant and offering a large reward for information helpful to the police.

Official reports said the bomb was planted between the third and fourth row of seats in the bus but that no-one was killed. However, sources contacted by Reuters said two people died, and 30 were injured.

The semi-official China News Service quoted the Peking Mayor, Jia Qingling, as saying another smaller bomb went off earlier last week elsewhere in the Chinese capital, but that no-one was hurt in that incident. Rumours had already circulated in Peking of a bus bomb last Thursday.

Exiled Uighur separatists claimed responsibility for Friday's bomb, and vowed to stage more attacks until they had gained "complete freedom" for China's western region of Xinjiang. The blast in Peking came just 10 days after three bus bombs in Urumqi, the provincial capital of Xinjiang. The Urumqi bombs, which killed nine people and injured 74, went off on the day of the memorial ceremony for Deng Xiaoping, and Friday's bomb on a Number 22 bus in the Xidan shopping street coincided with this year's meeting of China's parliament, the National Peo- ple's Congress (NPC).

Known terrorist attacks are rare in China, and while the country is governed by an often brutal authoritarian regime it is one which has little experience in the sort of security measures needed to guard against indiscriminate bombings.

With the profitable tourist season just under way in China, the authorities are anxious to halt any more incidents, particularly outside Xinjiang. By yesterday, security in Peking was visibly tighter especially in department stores and at the railway station, with large numbers of security guards and policemen deployed. Taxi drivers said that their work units had told them to be wary of Uighur and Tibetan passengers, and not to touch any parcels left in their cars.

The danger is that a heavy-handed response by the Chinese will alienate public opinion ever more in Xinjiang, encouraging support for separatist activity which until now has seemed to be the work of uncoordinated Uighur groups, possibly backed by Uighur separatists based in neighbouring Kazakhstan.

Last April, for instance, a wave of arrests reportedly netted 1,700 Uighurs in Xinjiang, further infuriating an ethnic group which accuses Peking of flooding Han Chinese into its province, and exploiting Xinjiang's oil resources for the rest of China's benefit.

Xinjiang is home to China's big-gest concentration of Muslims - mostly Uighurs, but also Kazaks, Kirzhis and Hui - and for decades Peking has been unable to quell outbursts of violent separatist activity. Until now, however, these attacks have only taken place inside Xinjiang. In May 1995, five Muslims were executed for their part in 1992 bombings, two of which took place on Xinjiang buses. In May last year, nine alleged separatists were killed in a shoot-out in Kuqa city and, separately, a pro-Peking Muslim leader was assassinated.

In the West, the anti-Chinese movement in Xinjiang is much less well- known than the Tibetan people's struggle against Han Chinese domination, because the Uighurs have no exiled leader figure like Tibet's Dalai Lama.

So far, the Chinese government's response to the recent upsurge in terrorism shows no appreciation of the fact that bombing public buses may have little widespread public support even among those resisting Han domination. Both Xinjiang and Tibet are now likely to face a "crackdown" in which innocent people will also be rounded up, increasing ethnic tensions still further.

Last week, Chinese officials at the NPC announced plans for harsher penalties for any terrorist crime. The proposed changes to the criminal law would add up to 10 years in prison to any sentence for bombing or kidnapping which was deemed a terrorist act.

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