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Last Updated: Monday, 15 December, 2003, 16:24 GMT
China's changing views of terrorism

By Tim Luard
BBC News Online

China is stepping up its efforts to convince the outside world that there is a direct link between the US-led war on terror and its own fight against Muslim separatists.

But many remain unconvinced by Beijing's latest claims against those accused of carrying out a series of bombings and assassinations in its biggest and most politically restive region.

In the past, China revealed as little as possible about the sensitive issue of separatist violence in the huge and remote western region of Xinjiang.

Apart from anything else, it was highly embarrassed by the claims of local Muslim Uighurs that they were being oppressed and overwhelmed by outsiders in their own land.

"Beijing was initially very shy about the whole problem," said MJ Gohel, a terrorism specialist at the Asia Pacific Foundation, an independent intelligence think tank based in London.

Separatists were labelled as mentally ill and the whole problem was simply covered up, he said.

But now he believes China has "come out of the closet" as far as Xinjiang and terrorism are concerned.

The Uighurs, who look and sound more like Turks than Han Chinese, enjoyed a brief period of independence in the 1940s, calling themselves the Republic of East Turkestan.

CHINA'S UIGHURS
Ethnically Turkic Muslims
Made bid for independent state in 1940s
Sporadic violence in Xinjiang since 1991

But the communists re-established control soon after coming to power and the Han Chinese population has since increased from less than 10% to almost 50% of the total.

China has waged a continuing battle against signs of rebellion against its rule, though human rights groups say many of those it has arrested may have done "little more than practice their religion or defend their culture".

Since the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States, China has not only intensified its crackdown in Xinjiang, but it has also felt bold enough to seek outside help.

It now describes its once secret and sensitive private problem as an integral part of the war on global terrorism.

It has already named more than 10 groups it accuses of being behind terrorist attacks aimed at creating an independent Islamic state.

Now it has picked out four groups and 11 individuals it says are threatening not only China's security but also that of other countries in the region.

China says they are all based abroad and therefore it needs international help in dealing with them.

They include the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which the US and the UN agreed to ban last year after being heavily lobbied on the issue by China.

As well as ETIM, the groups named on China's first ever "terrorist" list are the Eastern Turkestan Liberation Organization (ETLO), the World Uighur Youth Congress (WUYC) and the East Turkestan Information Centre (ETIC).

There is credibility to the claims that both these groups - ETIM and ETLO - have close links with terrorist groups in the region
MJ Gohel, Asia Pacific Foundation

The last two groups, both based in Germany, have been operating openly and legally for years, and there seems little prospect of the German Government acting to close them down as China wishes.

Although they both support the creation of a independent state for Xinjiang's Muslims, there is no sign of any evidence linking either of these groups to terrorism, said Michael Dillon, a specialist on Xinjiang at the University of Durham.

Like many others, he is not convinced that the other two groups on the list even exist.

"There are militant organisations, it is true, involved in some of these attacks inside Xinjiang, but whether they have links abroad or really are these two that are being named is open to doubt," Mr Dillon said.

The US may have decided to back Beijing's original call for action against ETIM partly as a way of repaying China's support for its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to some observers. At the same time, they say, Washington seems to have agreed to overlook Chinese human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Bin Laden link

But some terrorism specialists say there are grounds for believing that Washington and Beijing have tangible evidence linking ETIM to the Taleban in neighbouring Afghanistan and Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda network.

"The Chinese do have a valid argument in this case," said MJ Gohel of the Asia Pacific Foundation.

In recent years a large number of Uighurs have crossed the border from Xinjiang into Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia and have come into contact with al-Qaeda and other groups, he said.

"Some have become radicalised and received training and arms before slipping back across the Chinese border.

"There is credibility to the claims that both these groups - ETIM and ETLO - have close links with terrorist groups in the region".

The failure of Pakistan to stop them is one reason for the recent cooling of ties between Beijing and Islamabad, Mr Gohel added.

Beijing is currently pressing Washington to repatriate several Uighur prisoners who have been held at Guantanamo Bay since being detained by US forces in Afghanistan.




SEE ALSO:
China issues 'terrorist' list
15 Dec 03  |  Asia-Pacific
China's high-stakes war on terror
03 Nov 03  |  Asia-Pacific
China's Uighurs mourn way of life
04 Oct 03  |  From Our Own Correspondent
Language blow for China's Muslims
01 Jun 02  |  Asia-Pacific
China's fearful Muslim minority
08 Jan 02  |  Asia-Pacific


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