BEIJING — Chinese authorities said late Monday that they had arrested three more suspects in Saturday’s deadly bloodbath in southern China, an attack they hinted earlier in the day was linked to international terrorist groups.
Both claims were difficult to verify, deepening the mystery of how a handful of assailants, armed with only knives and sabers, managed to kill 29 train commuters and injure more than 140 others.
Since news of the train station attack broke Saturday from the southern China city of Kunming, the Chinese public has responded with both sympathy for the victims and calls for harsh retribution against those who had a role in carrying out the terrorist attack.
As of late Monday, however, Chinese authorities had not made public the identities of four assailants initially killed at the Kunming train station, another one quickly captured and three others reported arrested on Monday. Nor have they detailed why Kunming police have linked the suspects to “separatists” in China’s far western Xinjiang region, where police and the local Muslim population — known as Uighurs — have clashed for years.
Dru Gladney, a professor at California’s Pomona College who specializes in Central Asia, said China has offered little evidence to back up a link to Xinjiang militants. If a link is confirmed, he said, it would represent a significant change in tactics and planning among Uighur militants, whose attacks generally have been aimed at Xinjiang police, not civilians in other parts of China.
“Assuming this is confirmed, it represents a whole new level of planning and complexity than what we have seen in the past,” Gladney said. “It really ups the ante.”
Many in China agree. The Kunming attack follows a deadly Beijing incident in October, when three Uighurs drove a jeep into a crowd at Tiananmen Square, killing two and injuring 40 before setting the vehicle on fire, killing themselves.
“The latest attacks in Beijing and Kunming have clearly indicated a despicable trend that separatists are targeting civilians out of Xinjiang,” said a commentary Sunday on the English-language website of the Global Times, a state-run newspaper.
Xinjiang, a vast desert region that borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan, is home to more than 10 million Uighurs (sometimes spelled “Uyghurs”) who speak a Turkic language. In recent decades, they’ve become greatly outnumbered by Han Chinese, many of whom have migrated to Xinjiang to work in the region’s expanding oil and gas industry.
Experts say that young Muslims in Xinjiang are becoming increasingly radicalized, a trend that human rights groups blame on China’s systemic repression of Uighurs, including excluding them from jobs and restricting their religious practices.
On Monday, a Chinese military official suggested that outside forces had a role in helping to carry out the Kunming massacre. As reported by China’s Xinhua news service, Rear Adm. Yin Zhuo was quoted as saying: “The well-planned attack was not an issue of (ethnicity) or religion, it was an issue of terrorism with links to terrorist forces out of the country.”
Later that day, reporters pressed a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman to detail evidence that the attack was carried out by Xinjiang separatists with outside help. Spokesman Qin Gang said police investigators had found “East Turkestan” flags at the scene, a reference to the name that Uighurs use to describe their homeland.
Qin provided no further details, but images of a flag purportedly belonging to the terrorists flashed across social media starting on Sunday. Its authenticity could not be verified.
Gladney urged caution in leaping to conclusions about the assailants, based on what China has offered up so far. He said that photos of the knives used in the attack did not appear to be those used by Uighurs in Xinjiang. He also was suspicious of the “East Turkestan” flag appearing on social media, noting that it was dark blue in color, as opposed to the flag flown by Uighurs, which is light blue.
China has linked past attacks by Uighurs to an organization called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a group linked at one time to international terrorists. But in 2009, a U.S. appeals court, ruling in a case on releasing Uighurs detained at Guantanamo, noted that “the government had not presented sufficient evidence that the East Turkestan Islamic Movement was associated with al Qaida or the Taliban.” In recent years, debate has increased about whether the group was ever a functioning organization.
Chinese officials alleged the Kunming attack was timed to gain maximum international attention ahead of a big week in China, when the Communist Party’s version of parliament is scheduled to meet Wednesday in Beijing. Security, already tight for that meeting, was tightened further Sunday at airports and crowded subway stations.
Gladney said the choice of Kunming for the attack eventually may reveal much about the assailants, their origins and their training. Unlike Beijing, Kunming is close to China’s border with several Southeast Asian countries, including that of Myanmar, also known as Burma. Militants trained in Malaysia or Indonesia, where there are known Islamic terrorist groups, could easily enter China across the porous border with Myanmar.
According to state media, the attackers were dressed in black and two were women, one of whom was killed and one captured. Gladney said this was reminiscent of rebels in Chechnya, who have dressed in black and deployed “black widows” to carry out suicide bombings against Russians and Russian forces.
Chinese state media claimed the case was closed, with all eight attackers accounted for, down from 10 as originally reported. Xinhua reported that “the terrorist gang of eight members led by Abdurehim Kurban was responsible for the attack.” It provided no further details.
The Uighur self-determination movement is represented by a Munich-based group, the World Uyghur Congress, which the Chinese have accused of instigating past Uighur rebellions and crude bombings. In an interview Monday, a spokesman based in Washington denied that the group endorses violence and said the group is in sympathy with Chinese victims of the attack.
“We are shocked and saddened by what happened in Kunming,” said the spokesman, Alim A. Seytoff. “We don’t know who did it, or why they did it.”
Like Gladney, Seytoff said the public should be cautious about Chinese government claims about the attacks, given past cases in which Uighurs were accused of crimes they did not commit. Regardless of who is responsible, he said, he suspects a harsh response from the Chinese against Uighurs both in Xinjiang and in other parts of China.
“Those kind of policies only serve to radicalize Uighurs,” he said. “That is not in the interest of China or the Uighur people.”