Chinese police have caught five suspected Islamist militants after a vehicle burst into flames earlier this week on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, in what state media have finally termed a terrorist attack.
Five people were killed and dozens injured when a car crashed into a crowd of people and burst into flames just after noon close to the entrance to the Forbidden City on Monday. Those killed included the three occupants of the car and two tourists, a Chinese man from Guangdong Province and a Filipino woman.
The crash happened in one of China’s most politically sensitive and symbolic areas, overlooked by the iconic portrait of Mao Zedong and not far from Zhangnanhai, the compound where members of China’s central leadership live and work.
In a statement published yesterday by the Chinese state news agency, Xinhua, police said the incident was “carefully planned, organised and premeditated”. The vehicle was driven by a man called Usmen Hasan and the other two passengers who were his wife and mother, according to police.
His name all but confirms that he is a member of the predominantly Muslim Uighur minority in the troubled Xinjiang region in western China.
According to state television, police recovered “petrol-filled cans, knives, iron bars and flags bearing extremist slogans” from the car. A police spokesperson said all three people in the car died after they set petrol inside the car alight.
Five suspects were arrested ten hours after the incident in cooperation with the Xinjiang police, according to a spokesperson for the Beijing Municipal Security Bureau. Their names also suggest that they are ethnic Uighur. State media reported that police found knives and “at least one jihad flag” in a residence of the five suspects.
However, human rights organisations and an Uighur exile group cast doubt on the official Chinese version of the incident. In a statement the World Uyghur Congress, an exiled ethnic Uighur group, said it was concerned about a “lack of transparency” regarding the incident. They said they believe the Chinese public will “never hear a free and fair account of events in Beijing” and expressed “profound sadness” at the loss of life, saying it rejects violence in all forms.
Sarah Cook, a senior research analyst specialising in East Asia with Freedom House, a US-based organisation which promotes human rights and democracy, said the Chinese government and state media are “very careful” about what kind of information they release about such incidents.
There have been reports that security has been stepped up in Xinjiang and that a number of Uighurs have been arrested in Beijing and other cities.
Ms Cook said that there are concerns from within the Uighur community that this kind of reporting “incites a level of hostility and fear and fuels more of these types of tension between Uighur and Han Chinese that already exists”.
There have been no details given of a possible motive for the attack.
Many Uighurs complain that they face discrimination and religious restrictions.