Western Chinese county reopens after bombings

Aug. 11, 2008, 4:04 a.m. (ET)

KUQA, China (AP) Major streets reopened and people strolled downtown again Monday in a western Chinese county rocked by a series of bombings by attackers who defied tight security measures for the Olympics.

The violence Sunday that police said killed 10 assailants and one security guard came just days after a militant Islamic group linked to al-Qaida issued a new warning that it would strike during the Beijing Games.

The bombings in far western Kuqa were the second brazen attack in the restive Muslim territory of Xinjiang in a week. They prompted a security lock-down in the tourist destination.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, and police have not released any evidence that a terrorist organization was involved. But tensions in Xinjiang have been simmering for decades between the Muslim minority Uighur people and the Han Chinese who are about 90 percent of the nation's population.

On Monday, streets that were closed for most of Sunday were reopened again, and life seemed relatively normal as people strolled along the sidewalks and shopped in the markets.

The series of bombings apparently targeted places frequented mostly by Chinese, including a police station, government buildings, a bank and a shopping center in Kuqa - a base for oil and natural gas projects in the surrounding desert and mountains. It is also popular among tourists for its ancient Buddhist artifacts.

One blast blew the metal security door off the Three Eagle Shoe City, knocking over display cases and littering the floor with broken glass, light bulbs and shoes.

"I have no idea what their motive was," said the store's owner, who declined to give his name because of the sensitivity of the attack. "I opened this store about a year ago. Business has been OK. Now I don't know how I'm going to afford to fix it up."

In a brief statement, police said officers killed eight of the attackers and two others blew themselves up. Two were arrested and three were at large, said the police, giving no more information.

Rumors circulated among residents that the attacks involved two women, but police would not confirm it.

The state-run Xinhua News Agency provided a more dramatic account, of 12 bombings using bent pipes, gas canisters and liquid gas tanks.

In one attack, assailants drove an explosive-laden three-wheeled vehicle into the compound of the public security bureau at about 2:30 a.m. and blew it up, killing a security guard and injuring two police and two civilians.

Police later went to a market and found five hiding attackers who started hurling bombs. Police fatally shot two of them, and three others killed themselves with their own bombs, Xinhua said.

Police declined to confirm the Xinhua account or comment on the discrepancies between it and the police statement.

On Monday, a tarp covered the entrance of the small shop where the attackers apparently were hiding, in Kuqa's old city where the Uighurs have a big, bustling market and a large mosque with a green onion dome on its roof and minarets.

Part of the small shop was blackened and burned out. The entrance of the shop next door was covered with a red, metal security door that had at least eight bullet holes in it.

One group that might be behind the attacks was the Turkestan Islamic Party, which issued the recent Olympics threat. The organization, which analysts believe is based in neighboring Pakistan, is fighting for Xinjiang independence.

A week earlier, two attackers killed 16 border police in the Xinjiang city of Kashgar, near the Pakistan-Afghan border. No one claimed responsibility.

But an expert on the region said too little was known about the latest attacks to conclude that they were linked to the militant group and its purported causes.

"The two events, for the most part, have been directed against the police apparatus, which still continues to suggest to me that there may be some personal vendettas involved," said Dru Gladney, a Xinjiang specialist at the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College in California.

"China has arrested a lot of Uighurs, particularly leading up to the Olympics. There's a lot of surveillance, a lot of detentions, and there may be just a rising sense of resentment and disgruntlement that have led to these attacks on the police," Gladney said.

A Uighur shopkeeper who would not give his name because he feared he might be arrested, said: "The Chinese are really bad. There are just too many of them now in Kuqa. They're taking over and they're very arrogant."

Many Uighurs want independence for Xinjiang, a sprawling region rich in minerals and oil. Critics say the millions of Han Chinese who have settled here in recent years are gradually squeezing the Turkic people out of their homeland.

But many Chinese believe the Uighurs are backward and ungrateful for the economic development the Chinese have brought to the poor region.

After Sunday's bombings, the authorities declared virtual martial law in Kuqa, about 1,740 miles (2,800 kilometers) west of Beijing with a population of 400,000.

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Associated Press Writer Gillian Wong in Beijing contributed to this report.

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