A jeep has crashed into a crowd of tourists in China’s Tiananmen Square, catching on fire and killing five people.
At least 38 people were injured in the incident, including security officers and tourists, according to local media reports and a statement released by the police.
The vehicle appeared to have jumped a curb some 400 metres away from the crash site, driven along a pedestrianised walkway before slamming into the stones of the famous Tiananmen Gate, leading up to Beijing’s Forbidden City.
Both Chinese and foreign tourists were gathered at the southern entrance to the former imperial palace today when the crash occurred, killing the jeep’s driver, its two passengers, and two tourists when it hit a guardrail protecting the historic site.
Police are now searching local hotels for evidence of a pair of 'suspicious guests', who checked in at some point since 1 October, who are thought to be Uighurs - Turkic-speaking Muslims with a history of clashing with the authorities over punishing controls on their culture and religion.
No official confirmation was provided that the incident was no accident, but an anonymous source close to the country's leadership told Reuters: “It looks like a premeditated suicide attack.”
“It was no accident,” the source said. “The jeep knocked down barricades and rammed into pedestrians. The three men had no plans to flee from the scene.”
A spokeswoman for the Chinese foreign ministry refused to comment on speculation that the crash could have been a terrorist attack, saying she was “not aware of the specifics of the case”.
The area was immediately closed off by Chinese authorities, who set up screens around the crash site and performed a swift clear-up operation.
Photos of the scene showed black smoke rising from the gate, but further details remained scarce amid reports from the AFP news agency that a number of journalists and photographers had their equipment confiscated and cleared of data.
Tiananmen Square has been a focal point for political protests ever since the military violently suppressed a pro-democracy movement in 1989. As a result it is almost always heavily policed, and any potentially controversial incidents are treated as highly sensitive.
When the protective screens came down later the wreckage had been removed, leaving no trace of any vehicles, fire damage or impact to any of the structures in the plaza.
Baggage checks and identity screenings were nonetheless stepped up at access points to the area, and the entrance to the Forbidden City was closed off to the public.
The wider area around Tiananmen Square is one of China's most closely guarded and politically sensitive public spaces. To the west lies the Great Hall of the People, the seat of China's parliament, and many of China's top politicians live and work a short distance away in the secure Zhongnanhai compound.
China has blamed a number of attacks over the years on the Uighur, based in the Xinjiang region, where groups of separatists and religious extremists are said to be based. It has never been reported by the government that their activities have spread to the nation's capital, however.
“They have been known to carry out attacks outside of Xinjiang,” said Yang Shu, a terrorism expert at China's Lanzhou University.
“There have also been reports that East Turkestan elements have received training in Syria, so I would say the possibility does exist of a Xinjiang connection,” he added.
China denies mistreating any of its minority groups, saying they are guaranteed wide-ranging religious and cultural freedoms.
But many rights groups say the state exaggerates the threat posed by Uighurs in order to justify tough controls on energy-rich Xinjiang, which lies strategically on the borders of Central Asia, India and Pakistan.
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