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Official: 2 attackers in western China were women

Aug. 11, 2008, 7:16 a.m. (ET)

KUQA, China (AP) Two women were among a squad of assailants that hurled homemade bombs at government buildings and police this week in violence that left 12 people dead in a Muslim region of China, officials said Monday.

Police were still investigating whether the attackers belonged to an al-Qaida-linked group that has threatened to disrupt the Olympic Games under way in Beijing, some 1,740 miles (2,800 kilometers) to the east, the official said.

Tensions in Xinjiang have been simmering for decades between the Muslim minority Uighur people and the majority Han Chinese, but the direct involvement of women in perpetrating the violence is highly unusual.

Authorities said 15 people launched attacks on 17 sites Sunday in Kuqa city and that ten assailants, one security guard and a passer-by were killed. The attacks targeted government buildings, a police station and Han Chinese-owned shops.

Mu Tielifuhasimu, commissioner of the administrative office of Akesu Region, told a news conference Monday that two women were among the attacks, and that one was killed and one injured.

Three other attackers were still on the run and they were a mix of local residents and outsiders, he said.

"The motive was just to create terror in society," Mu said. He was unable to say whether the attack was timed to take the spotlight off the Olympics.

Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher with New York-based Human Rights Watch's Asia division, said the attacks were significant because they suggested the perpetrators were well-organized.

"The presence of women is also a new element and it might be prompted by the desire to escape scrutiny because Uighur men are more likely to attract police scrutiny than women, but we don't really know the circumstances," Bequelin said. "These two elements make the threats more serious."

Major streets reopened and people strolled downtown again in Kuqa on Monday. It was the second brazen attack in the restive Muslim territory in a week, and came just days after an online video online by the shadowy militant group the Turkestan Islamic Party containing threats to the games.

No group has claimed responsibility for Sunday's attack, and police have not released any evidence that a terrorist organization was involved.

In a statement Sunday, 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.

The state-run Xinhua News Agency provided a more dramatic account, of bombings using bent pipes, gas canisters and liquid gas tanks. It said assailants drove an explosive-laden three-wheeled vehicle into the grounds 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 - one of whom died later.

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. 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.

Analysts believe the Turkestan Islamic Party, which wants independence for Xinjiang, is based in neighboring Pakistan, where some of its core leaders may have received training from al-Qaida.

On Aug. 4, two attackers killed 16 border police in the Xinjiang city of Kashgar, near the Pakistan-Afghan border. No one claimed responsibility.

Dru Gladney, a Xinjiang specialist at the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College in California, said too little was known about the latest attacks to conclude they were linked to the Turkestan Islamic Party.

"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," Gladney said.

Detentions and surveillance of Uighurs by police had increased in the lead up to the Olympics "and there may be just a rising sense of resentment and disgruntlement that have led to these attacks on the police," Gladney said.

Many Uighurs want independence for Xinjiang, a sprawling mineral- and oil-rich region. 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, home to about 400,000 people.

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


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