On August 1, China blamed militants trained by the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in Pakistan for orchestrating attacks on civilians in the troubled Xinjiang province’s Kashgar city, where 20 people, including alleged militants, were killed in violent incidents over two days.
Nine people were killed in a violent attack on July 30. Reports said two attackers hijacked a truck that was waiting at a traffic point, killed the driver and ploughed the vehicle into passers-by on a nearby pavement. They then got off the truck and began stabbing people at random, leaving six by standers dead and another 28 injured before the crowd turned on them, killing one attacker. The other was detained.
The next day, on July 31, armed attackers broke into a restaurant in the city centre in Kashgar and killed a Han restaurant owner and a waiter besides setting it on fire. Subsequently, the militants hacked civilians indiscriminately, leaving four dead and 12 injured, while police and fire fighters were trying to put out the fire. Police opened fire and killed four suspects at the scene, while another suspect died later in hospital.
The attacks resembled the riots in 2009 and following up incidents in which the native Uighurs Muslims had attacked Chinese Han settlers in Urumqi. The local police had termed the incident as “a severely violent terrorism case” organized and premeditated by terrorist groups. Security forces had launched a crackdown on the ETIM, which China accuses of fomenting trouble in the region.
Hans are settlers from mainland Chinese, who the Uighurs complain are marginalizing the local Muslim population. Chinese sources indicate that recurrent attacks have been carried out by the ETIM to terrorize the Han businessmen. However, several other sources indicate that the Uighurs are peace-loving people and have little connection with trans-border terrorism. China is merely using the pretext of Islamist terror to subjugate them.
In any event, the fact remains that some Uighurs under the banner of ETIM have traveled to the Af-Pak region and have trained with the Taliban/ Al-Qaeda network in terrorist activities.
A statement on the recent attacks by the Kashgar municipal government in Xinjiang, carried in state run Xinhua news agency said “A group of religious extremists led by culprits trained in overseas terrorist camps were behind the weekend attack on civilians in China’s far-western Xinjiang.” The statement added, “Initial probe has shown that the heads of the group had learned skills of making explosives and firearms in overseas camps of the ETIM terrorist group in Pakistan before entering Xinjiang to organize terrorist activities.”
The Sunni Islamist ETIM’s purported objective is to attain independence for East Turkestan (present day Xinjiang) and imposition of Shariah over the liberated territory. Founded in 1993, the group underwent a complete reorganization in 1997. During the Taliban regime in Afghanistan (1996 to 2001), the ETIM operated from Kabul and later shifted to Pakistan, following the toppling of the Taliban government in 2001. Majority of ETIM’s camps are now based in Pakistan and the group continues to operate in close coordination with the Taliban and the Al Qaeda. Some ETIM camps are also based in certain Central Asian states as well.
The US government banned the outfit in 2002, freezing its assets. The move followed the arrest of two ETIM members who were planning to bomb the US Embassy in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek. They were subsequently deported from Kyrgyzstan to China. Subsequently, the UN too added the ETIM to its list of terrorists and terrorist supporters associated with Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network.
Xinjiang shares its borders with Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) and a lot of trade between China and Pakistan is routed through Kashgar as it is located close to the border. In June 2009, Chinese President Hu Jintao had asked his Pakistani counterpart Asif Ali Zardari to take steps to root out ETIM.
The Chinese President had expressed his concerns over security of Chinese nationals working on different development projects in Pakistan. Following the request, the Pakistan Interior Ministry had directed law-enforcement agencies of all the four provinces to beef up security measures for Chinese in their respective areas. It is not clear whether any extra effort was taken against the ETIM.
It remains to be seen what steps Pakistan now takes to address China’s concerns. Islamabad is reportedly revisiting its anti-terror policy in the wake of what it considers “abandonment by the United States”. Senior officials in that country have told the media that since the US is no longer interested in Pakistan, the country needs to manage its own meager resources well enough to fight the terror groups.
Whether Pakistan can now rope in China to fund some of its anti-terror efforts to target groups that include the ETIM is a moot question. Another contrasting scenario could be true as well. China possibly could be using the ETIM pretext to develop a close counter-terror partnership with Pakistan.