Chinese police announced Wednesday the arrests of five people in connection with this week's car crash on Beijing's Tiananmen Square, calling it a planned "terrorist attack" — the capital's first in recent history — and identifying the attackers as members of a Muslim minority.
Police said the five suspects were detained on Monday, the same day as the noon attack at the Forbidden City gate across from Tiananmen Square, in the culturally and politically sensitive section of Beijing where China's Communist Party leaders live and work.
A statement on the Beijing police microblog said the perpetrators, all of whom died in the attack, had been identified as a man with an ethnic Uighur name, his wife and his mother. The five suspects arrested on suspicion of conspiring in the attack were were identified with typically Uighur names.
Uighurs are Muslim Turks native to the restive northwestern region of Xinjiang, where groups opposed to Chinese rule have been battling security forces for years.
An attack in one of the eastern population centers is "something that the Chinese authorities have been worried about for a long time," said Philip Potter, a terrorism expert at the University of Michigan.
"Once this threshold has been crossed, it is a difficult thing to constrain," Potter said, predicting tighter surveillance and scrutiny of Uighurs in eastern cities.
The three attackers died when their vehicle exploded beneath the portrait of Mao Zedong hanging from Tiananmen Gate. Two tourists, including a Filipina woman, were killed by the vehicle as it sped down a crowded sidewalk; 38 people were injured, including three Filipino citizens and a Japanese man.
Knives, iron rods, gasoline and a flag imprinted with religious slogans were found in the vehicle, police said.
The statement said the five who were detained had helped plan and execute the attack and were caught 10 hours after it was carried out. It said they had been on the run and were tracked down with the help of police in Xinjiang and elsewhere. It didn't say where they were captured, but said police had found flags associated with Muslim rebel groups and long knives inside their temporary lodgings.
"The initial understanding of the police is that the Oct. 28 incident is a case of a violent terrorist attack that was carefully planned, organized and plotted," the statement said.
The attack appears to mark a new boldness on the part of armed groups and follows a particularly bloody summer of clashes in Xinjiang, including an attack on a police station that left at least 56 people dead. The government typically calls such incidents "terrorist attacks."
China has up to now been largely successful at limiting both the volume and the effectiveness of such domestic attacks while containing them mainly in Xinjiang. However, the Chinese government had warned that armed groups might be planning attacks outside of Xinjiang.
Xinjiang borders Afghanistan and unstable Central Asian states with other armed groups, and Uighurs are believed to be among those sheltering in Pakistan's lawless northwestern region.
China says much of the violence is orchestrated by Uighur activists based in the West or in Pakistan and other neighboring countries, but it has provided little evidence publicly. The U.S. initially placed one group, the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, on a “terrorist watch list” following the Sept. 11 attacks but later quietly removed it amid doubts that it existed in any organized manner.
Violence by Uighurs is generally seen as fueled by heavy-handed Chinese rule in Xinjiang and discrimination against them by China's ethnic Han majority, who make up more than 90 percent of the country's population. Many Uighurs say they face routine discrimination, irksome restrictions on their culture and Muslim religion, and economic disenfranchisement that has left them largely poor even as China's economy booms.
Uighurs say they have seen little benefit from the exploitation of Xinjiang's natural resources, while good jobs tend to flow to ethnic Han migrants. The 9 million Uighurs now make up about 43 percent of the population in a region more than twice the size of Texas where they used to dominate.
Uighurs in Beijing say police have stepped up identity checks and other forms of scrutiny since Monday's attack. The overseas advocacy group World Uyghur Congress on Tuesday urged caution and expressed concerns that Beijing could use the incident to demonize Uighurs as a group. A Sweden-based spokesman for the organization said 93 Uighurs have been detained without charge in Beijing in security sweeps following Monday's attack.
The Associated Press