Police say they have broken up an overseas-backed terrorist cell responsible for two major bombings at the time of the Beijing Olympics and a series of other attacks in the restive region of Xinjiang since 2008.
More than 10 suspects were arrested and a substantial number of homemade explosives and devices confiscated, police said, but gave no details as to how and when the arrests took place.
The timing of the announcement coincides with the upcoming first anniversary of the bloody ethnic clash in Urumqi last July, which killed at least 197 people and injured 2,000 others. The central government blamed separatist forces overseas for instigating the incident.
In line with past press conferences on terrorist activities marked by their brevity and scant details, the announcement yesterday by Ministry of Public Security spokesman Wu Heping lasted about 10 minutes. He did not take questions.
Reading from a statement, Wu said the cell was initiated and supported by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a separatist group that he said also helped the cell plan its escape from China. The ETIM is allegedly linked to al-Qaeda and was designated a terrorist organisation by the United Nations in 2002.
Wu said the police first received leads about the cell when Chinese nationals trying to illegally enter another country were repatriated to China at the end of last year. Three of them turned out to be wanted by police and members of the cell.
Two leaders of the cell, Xinjiang residents Abudurexiti Abulaiti and Yiming Semaier, admitted being key members of the ETIM and East Turkestan forces, according to Wu. They further admitted to travelling extensively in Xinjiang and such provinces as Henan , Yunnan and Guangdong before the attacks, recruiting members, raising funds, and buying and testing explosives.
Wu said that from 2008 the cell planned and implemented 'many terrorist attacks' in Xinjiang, including two high-profile bombings during the Olympics. On August 4, 2008, two Uygur men drove a car at a border police team on their morning jog in Kashgar , shooting and setting off explosives at the same time. Seventeen policemen died and 15 were injured; the two defendants were executed in April. On August 10, five Uygur men threw grenades at a police station and a government department in Kuga county. The five were killed on the spot.
The police yesterday provided pictures of the two cell leaders and of some of the explosives confiscated. However, it is unclear from the statement how the police concluded this cell was responsible for the various bombings.
Police said the group was preparing for bigger attacks between July and October last year in places such as Kashgar, Hotian and Aksu, but decided to flee when several plots were foiled by police. They had prepared dozens of homemade bombs, petrol bombs and other weapons for such attacks.
Wu said the cell members had tried to escape through the southwest border of China and most members had joined the ETIM during their escape. They also sent ETIM leaders e-mails with their personal details, seeking escape routes.
Wu said 'terrorist organisations such as ETIM are currently and will be the main terrorist threat to our country'.
Beijing regularly blames the ETIM for terror attacks in Xinjiang but human rights groups remain sceptical amid concerns that Beijing exaggerates the ETIM's activities to justify clamping down on Uygurs.