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Defence & Aerospace

China strips army official of position after attack

A tourist takes photos near the partially damaged stone bridge in front of Tiananmen Gate, in Beijing. File photo

A tourist takes photos near the partially damaged stone bridge in front of Tiananmen Gate, in Beijing. File photo

A senior military commander in China’s restive far west has been stripped of his position on a powerful Communist Party governing body after an attack in the nation’s capital last week that claimed five lives and deeply unnerved the Chinese leadership.

The official, Gen. Peng Yong, chief of the People’s Liberation Army in Xinjiang, was removed from the region’s Standing Committee, according to a one-sentence notice on Sunday on the front page of the newspaper Xinjiang Daily. The statement provided no explanation for his replacement by Liu Lei, a veteran army official in the region.

General Peng’s demotion was announced six days after an audacious attack on the political and symbolic heart of Beijing that government officials have described as an act of terrorism. Two people were killed and 40 others were injured on Monday when a vehicle plowed through a sidewalk packed with tourists and came to a stop at the entrance to the Forbidden City, the former imperial residence that sits opposite Tiananmen Square.

According to the police, the occupants of the vehicle then set it on fire, sending up a plume of smoke that briefly obscured the iconic portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong. All three occupants of the car, described as members of the same family, died in the fire.

The state news media has sought to portray the episode as an attack by Islamic extremists from Xinjiang, an energy-rich region that is home to the nation’s Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking minority whose relationship with China’s ethnic Han majority has become increasingly strained.

In recent days, the authorities have issued statements saying that the occupants of the car conspired with a group of five others, now in police custody, who the authorities say had ties to a murky jihadist group that operates in Central Asia.

Uighur exile groups and some Western analysts have questioned allegations that blame outside agitators, saying the Chinese government has failed to produce evidence linking the attack to the group, known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. A number of experts have questioned the group’s ability to strike inside China, noting that many of the recent attacks described by the authorities as premeditated acts of terrorism were carried out with knives and other crude weapons.

The World Uyghur Congress and other advocacy groups have expressed concern that the episode at Tiananmen Square would lead to an even greater crackdown in Xinjiang, adding to tensions that human rights advocates say fueled a number of violent clashes this past summer between Uighurs and security personnel.

“Rather than open up the Tiananmen incident to independent investigation, Chinese authorities are issuing sinister threats against the Uyghur people and making damaging accusations no one can check,” Rebiya Kadeer, the organization’s president, said in a statement on Friday.

Over the weekend, the state broadcaster CCTV released additional details about the episode on its English microblog account, saying the co-conspirators, all of them from the southern city of Hotan, had collected 100 gallons of gasoline, “Tibetan” knives and about $6,600 in preparation for the attack. The account, which CCTV later deleted, also said the attackers had “decided to set up a terrorist group” in September and then made three reconnaissance trips to Tiananmen Square before five of the participants returned to Xinjiang in early October.

Although it is not uncommon for local leaders to be held responsible for embarrassing high-profile episodes in their jurisdiction, the prompt demotion of General Peng suggests the sense of urgency that has gripped stability-obsessed officials in the central government.

By comparison, a decision three years ago to replace Wang Lequan, the party secretary of Xinjiang, was made nearly nine months after ethnic bloodletting in the regional capital that claimed nearly 200 lives. There was no immediate indication about whether General Peng would maintain his military post or his spot on the party’s Central Committee.

In recent days, the state news media has featured a drumbeat of dire warnings about the threat of terrorism; during a meeting in Uzbekistan on Friday, Meng Jiangzhu, the nation’s domestic security chief, urged a gathering of Central Asian officials to root out Uighur separatists to “maintain the safety and stability of our region.” On Sunday, the newspaper Beijing Daily quoted Guo Jinlong, the capital’s party secretary, who exhorted the police to improve their intelligence-gathering abilities. “Draconian prevention of violent terrorist attacks is part of the mission in maintaining order,” he said.

Beyond suggestions that the assailants were Uighur separatists inspired by militant Islamists, the Chinese news media has shed little light on what prompted the three people — Usmen Hasan, his wife and his mother — to drive a Mercedes-Benz sport utility vehicle through the throngs of tourists and then take their own lives. Harsh security measures in Xinjiang limit reporting by foreign journalists there.

On Saturday, Radio Free Asia, which is financed by the American government, quoted a former classmate of Mr. Hasan’s who suggested that Mr. Hasan might have been motivated by vengeance for a brother killed in a mysterious traffic accident several years earlier. The classmate, speaking by phone, said Mr. Hasan blamed the Han Chinese or the Chinese authorities for his brother’s death.

Radio Free Asia also quoted a local official in the family’s hometown who cast doubt on that account. “We are not aware of the family having any issue with the government,” the official said.

Source: NYTimes – “China Strips Army Official of Position After Attack” 

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  1. Pingback: China’s Coming Terrorism Wave | China Daily Mail - November 9, 2013

  2. Pingback: How China develops its counterterrorism capability | China Daily Mail - November 14, 2013

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