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Page last updated at 09:08 GMT, Friday, 15 August 2008 10:08 UK

Few answers in violence-hit Xinjiang

By Andrew Harding
BBC News, Kuqa, Xinjiang province

A crowd of Uighur residents in Kuqa
Uighur residents in the city of Kuqa looked on but said nothing

Chen Aibao was fast asleep when the first explosions shook the centre of Kuqa – a dusty commercial oasis in the arid plains of central Xinjiang.

Minutes later, he heard the sound of people running outside his own small stall, close to the city's hospital.

"I saw one of them - not clearly - but he was a young guy," he said. "He was shouting: 'Over here, over here.'"

The putative bomber was speaking in Uighur - a language of the region, also used by the ethnic separatist group that has re-emerged from the shadows to launch a string of brazen, and seemingly well-coordinated, attacks in China's north-western Xinjiang province during the Olympic Games.

Seconds later, a small home-made pipe bomb detonated, sending shrapnel flying through the ceiling of Mr Chen's shop.

"They are awful," he said, of the attackers. At least three more explosions damaged other Chinese-owned businesses along the same street, as well as the local police station.

'Be objective'

By the time we reached Kuqa, a day later, the streets were quiet and builders were starting to replace broken glass in shop fronts.

There were roadblocks on the edge of the city, and armoured vehicles patrolling the main roads.

Chen Daobing
Most of the people on this street are Chinese, but we have good relations with the minorities
Chen Daobing,
Kuqa businessman

The authorities said they were still hunting for three of the attackers, but 10 were already dead, and two more had been captured, including a 15-year-old girl who had been injured by her own bomb and was now in hospital.

As we moved around Kuqa, it was evident that the local authorities were struggling to decide quite how to deal with us.

Foreign journalists are normally not allowed into Xinjiang without official minders, but under the terms of our Olympic accreditation, we could travel independently.

"You must treat the facts objectively," warned a stern but charismatic senior regional official, Mu Tielifuhasimu.

He said he was watching the internet closely, to see how the foreign media covered the incident.

Unlike some of our colleagues in recent days, we were neither harassed nor detained by security officials. Instead, several officials hovered close to us as we followed the trail of destruction left by the bombers.

"I don't understand it," said a Chinese businessman named Chen Daobing, standing next to another damaged shop, and clearly addressing his comments to the lurking security officials rather than to me.

"I think they just want to cause panic. Most of the people on this street are Chinese, but we have good relations with the minorities."

'No questions, please'

Minorities. That is the key word. Decades ago, this vast region was almost entirely populated by Muslim Uighurs - who have much closer ties to Central Asia than to Beijing.

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Xinjiang resident says good relations exist with minority groups

But today the Uighurs are a minority in their own land, seemingly pushed to the fringes of fast-growing cities like Kuqa by a surge of Chinese immigrants.

The regional boss, Mu Tielifuhasimu - himself a Uighur - was adamant that rising prosperity was benefiting everyone in Xinjiang.

The scale of infrastructural investment in the region - from motorways to wind farms - is certainly impressive. But it is very hard to judge the real mood here.

Do the separatists have any real support? Do the attacks mark a final, desperate bid for Olympic publicity by a crumbling rebellion, or the start of a bold new movement? What turns a 15-year-old girl into a bomber?

Most Uighurs we approached turned away abruptly as soon as they saw us or our camera. Others claimed not to understand our questions.

Map of China

Even when we felt we had managed to shake off our minders, the heavy hand of Chinese rule seemed to smother the entire city.

Finally, in the market where the last bombers had been cornered and killed, I spoke briefly to an unidentified Uighur man who then turned and walked away fast into the dark alleys.

"I'm afraid, I'm afraid," he said quickly. "Please don't ask me any questions."



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