BEIJING // China has rejected claims that its handling of the ethnic clashes that broke out in the far western Xinjiang region would damage relations with Muslim countries, amid increased condemnation from extreme religious groups. The foreign ministry said at a regular press conference held yesterday in Beijing that the July 5 riots should not be seen as religious violence.
"If they have a clear idea about the true nature of the incident, they would understand China's policies concerning religion and religious issues and understand the measures we have taken," Qin Gang, China's foreign ministry spokesman, told reporters. But the violence, which left 184 dead, including 46 Uighurs, according to official statistics, is already being interpreted as strikes against Islam by extremist groups from South East Asia to Africa.
Al Qa'eda's North African offshoot became the first militant group to call for vengeance on China for the deaths and alleged suppression of Uighur Muslim culture and religion. Intelligence reports released by a London-based security analysis firm said the al Qa'eda in the Islamic Maghreb had pledged to avenge Uighur deaths by targeting the 50,000 Chinese nationals working in Chinese operations in Algeria as well as launching attacks on other Chinese projects in North Africa.
"This threat should be taken seriously. Just three weeks ago they ambushed a convoy of Algerian security forces protecting Chinese engineers, killing 24 Algerian security officers," the report said. Analysts say Chinese engineers were not attacked because the targets were security personnel. "But they could have easily kept firing at the Chinese," said Justin Crump, the head of terrorism at the London-based risk analysis firm Stirling Assynt, producers of the report. "What they do have is access to 50,000 nationals that are very easy to target. Their momentum is not that great, it's not on a roll, but it's not getting smaller, either."
Mr Crump said the report was based on information from sources "very close" to the militant group. The assessment, if correct, marks the beginning of al Qa'eda targeting Chinese interests. The Chinese government, which blames the violence in Urumqi on the "three forces" of extremism, separatism and terrorism, said there was evidence of Uighur militants receiving training from al Qa'eda forces abroad.
Analysts have accused the Chinese leadership of using terrorism as an excuse to clamp down on Uighurs, who accuse the Communist Party of having intentionally suppressed their culture for decades. Stirling Assynt said it expected public announcements from al Qa'eda's central units to follow within a week while other analysts said they expected other militant networks to condemn last week's ethnic violence.
The renewed violence underpins the challenges for the Communist Party in dealing with the tensions analysts say are in danger of sparking violence beyond China's borders. Roads reopened in Urumqi yesterday but officials warned that the death toll could still rise as tensions remain high in areas of the city where more than 1,680 have been wounded. State media said 74 of the more than 900 hospitalised have life-threatening conditions.
Officials are yet to release details of the events that led up to the July 5 riots, when mobs of Uighurs took to the streets setting vehicles alight and turning on Han Chinese, China's largest ethnic group. The following day, thousands of Han Chinese with makeshift weapons marched through the streets seeking vengeance. Security experts in China expect the government to implement a harsh clampdown on Xinjiang. Thousands of armed troops have been deployed in Urumqi. There have been reports of security forces spreading to other cities over the restive region.
Experts say too harsh a move could attract sympathetic militant groups to China's border. But Mr Crump said the Algerian operation's call for violence may be "populist" and said it was unlikely that central al Qa'eda would seek to target China directly. "I wouldn't draw a link between the two with this. They are very different," Mr Crump said. "China has never been attacked before. I think it shows that they want to keep away from causing trouble in China," he said of central al Qa'eda operations.
Associated Press reported that two websites run by extreme Islamic groups with connections to al Qa'eda had called for the killing of Han Chinese in the Middle East for alleged cultural and religious repression. Indonesian Muslim extremists have protested outside China's Embassy in Jakarta, calling for a "holy war" on Han Chinese. They demanded the Indonesian government end what they described as "genocide".