KASHGAR, China — China said Monday that two assailants in a truck mowed down a group of jogging policemen, then tossed grenades and slashed gasping survivors with knives in an attack that left 16 officers dead in this restive Muslim region in the nation's far west.
It was the bloodiest such attack in recent times in China, and it sent trepidation through the country just four days before the Summer Olympic Games open.
The state news agency, Xinhua, said the policemen were jogging at about 8 a.m. in this westernmost desert outpost on the old Silk Road when the truck plowed into them and the two assailants jumped out.
The assailants later were arrested, Xinhua said, but the agency didn't identify them or say whether they were ethnic Muslim Uighurs, a minority that chafes deeply at majority Han Chinese control of its religious and cultural lives. The assailants didn't attempt to commit suicide before they were overpowered. No group took immediate responsibility for the attack.
Residents near the site on a main thoroughfare pointed out a damaged electrical pole and other signs of the attack, although blood already had been washed away.
The policemen were on a daily morning jog, heading east on Seman Road in front of the Talimu Petroleum Hotel, residents said.
"Every morning, they run along this street," said a man who identified himself only by the surname Xia. "They were hit by the truck. The two people used knives and killed some of them."
Another 16 officers were injured, Xinhua said, some of them from knife wounds.
"This is the most serious incident of anti-state violence publicly recorded in more than a decade," said Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher based in Hong Kong for Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group. "This is very serious, especially at a time when security is at an all-time high in Kashgar."
The attack is certain to heighten China's security measures during the games. Already, surface-to-air missile batteries have been installed around some Olympic venues in Beijing, and some 100,000 security forces stand on alert around the capital.
President Bush, who'll arrive in Beijing on Thursday to attend the opening of the games, met last week in the White House with five dissidents, including Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur businesswoman living in exile in the United States whom many Uighurs revere.
Beijing reviles her as a separatist, and rejects her denials that she's linked to the outlawed East Turkistan Islamic Movement, which seeks to sever Muslim Xinjiang from China and create an independent state called East Turkistan. The group, which Washington listed as a terrorist organization in 2002, is thought to have ties to al Qaida.
After the meeting, Kadeer said Bush had asked after her sons, Alim and Ablikim Abdureyim, who're serving lengthy prison sentences in China, and that she'd voiced concerns that Beijing was repressing peaceful Uighur dissent in the name of anti-terrorism.
The Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurs) speak a Turkic language and have strong links to ethnic groups in Central Asia and even as far as Turkey. Many Uighurs don't know how to speak Chinese or decline to do so.
Concerns that Uighur militants might try to disrupt the Olympic Games grew July 23 with the release of a three-minute video from a Uighur militant identified by the single name of Sayfullah. He said he belonged to the Turkistan Islamic Party, and claimed that the group was responsible for explosions in May on a bus in Shanghai that killed three people and on two buses in Kunming in southern China on July 21 that killed two people.
"This is our last warning to China and the rest of the world. The viewers and athletes, especially those who are Muslim, who plan to go to the Olympics should change their plans and not go to China," Sayfullah said on the videotape. "The Turkistan Islamic Party plans military attacks on people, offices, arenas and other activities that are connected to the Chinese Olympic Games."
A terrorism analyst in India, Bahukutumbi Raman, of the Chennai Center for China Studies, said the Turkistan Islamic Party could be linked to the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, which is training militants in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan. Raman said the East Turkistan Islamic Movement was allied with other militant groups, including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Islamic Jihad Union, the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaida.
Raman said Uighur militants hadn't been known to attempt to slit the throats of their victims as in Monday's attack, adding that such a method was more common of Uzbek terrorist groups or the Taliban and al Qaida. But he said that some Uighurs appeared to be allying more closely with radical Uzbeks.
"Recent reports from the tribal areas of Pakistan speak of the arrival of some Uighurs from Turkey in the (Islamic Jihad Union) camps to undergo training," Raman said.
Earlier this year, China said it had arrested 82 "suspected terrorists" in Xinjiang for plotting against the games.
On March 7, authorities said they'd foiled an attempted attack onboard a flight to Beijing from Urumqi, the regional capital of gas-rich Xinjiang, by a Uighur man and woman who'd traveled from Pakistan. The woman reportedly was trying to set fire to a flammable substance that had been syringed into a beverage can.
On July 8, authorities said they'd killed five people in a raid on a "holy war training group" in Urumqi. A day later, two terrorists reportedly were executed near Kashgar on charges of separatist activities, attending a terrorist training camp and manufacturing explosives.