BEIJING – Chinese police called Tuesday for the extradition of eight alleged separatists accused of plotting a campaign of terror to coincide with the Beijing Olympics — a scheme that reportedly included bomb attacks within China and in unspecified countries in the Middle East and South Asia.
A Public Security Ministry spokesman said the eight men, all Chinese citizens, were believed to have financed, incited and organized attacks during and around the Aug. 8-24 games as part of an ongoing insurgency against Chinese rule in the traditionally Muslim west.
Wu Heping told reporters at a news briefing that the men were members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a murky collection of extremists believed to be based across the border in lawless areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The eight "seriously threatened the security of the Beijing Olympic Games and China's social stability, while at the same time composing a threat to the security and stability of relevant countries and the region," Wu said.
Wu did not say in what country the men were suspected of hiding and left the briefing without taking questions.
He said one of the men planned to bomb a supermarket popular with Chinese business people in an unspecified Middle Eastern country ahead of the opening of the Olympic Games. Another suspect had prepared to attack a Chinese club in a South Asian nation, he said, without giving details.
The men also organized numerous attacks within China but it was not clear from Wu's statement if any of them were carried out.
After years of relative quiet, the western region of Xinjiang was rocked in August by a series of guerrilla-style attacks and bombings that killed 33 people.
Wu did not say if the eight men were thought to be behind those attacks.
The violence was reportedly carried out by radicals among Xinjiang's native Uighur ethnic group, Muslims whose language, culture and religion are distinct from China's Han majority's. Like Tibetans, many Uighurs complain of a colonial-style Chinese presence on their territory, chafing under tight religious and cultural strictures and complaining that economic development has disproportionately benefited Chinese migrants.
Radical Uighurs opposed to Chinese rule have long waged a low intensity campaign of bombings and assassinations against Chinese officials. But terrorism experts say the struggle has taken a deadlier, more radical turn in recent years through exposure to global terror groups such as al-Qaida.
Seventeen Chinese Uighurs have been held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba since their capture in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2001 despite having been deemed unthreatening and cleared for release.
China has demanded the detainees be repatriated, but Washington has refused to do so because of fears they will tortured and executed. Albania accepted five Uighur detainees in 2006 but since has balked at taking others, partly for fear of diplomatic repercussions from China.
China claims that it foiled a number of terrorist plots this year before they could be carried out, including an alleged attempt by a 19-year-old woman to blow up a Beijing-bound plane with liquid explosives in March. But it has provided little direct evidence to support claims that Islamic Movement leaders based across the border ordered the attacks.
Overseas Uighur activists say such accusations are politically motivated and designed to justify strict curbs on religious, political and cultural rights in Xinjiang.
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Germany-based World Uighur Congress, said Tuesday's announcement was part of an attempt to provide legal cover for a wide-ranging crackdown on Uighurs that followed the Olympics.
China's refusal to publicly release evidence or allow an independent investigation into the recent attacks undercuts its accusations of terrorism, he said.
"I have never heard of these people and none of these accusations has been independently confirmed, but I'm sure they will use them to ratchet up pressure further in Xinjiang," Raxit said in a telephone interview.
In recent weeks, authorities in Xinjiang have reportedly detained hundreds of Uighurs in security sweeps, banned many from leaving the region and stepped up supervision of mosques.
Business security consultants International Risk said the Chinese crackdown was likely to continue.
"In the aftermath of the Olympics, the Chinese authorities have quietly stepped up their crackdown in Xinjiang," the Hong Kong-based company said in a report on global terrorism issued this month.
A news release issued at Wu's press conference offered basic biographical information about the suspects and photographs of seven of the eight men.
It identified one man, 37-year-old Memetiming Memeti, as the leader of the ETIM movement, saying he had joined the group in an unidentified South Asian country after leaving home in 1998 and assumed the leadership after its former chief was killed in a skirmish with security forces in Pakistan in 2003.
The statement said that under Memeti's guidance an unspecified number of terrorists sneaked into Xinjiang and other Chinese areas with plans to "sabotage the Olympic Games by conducting terrorist attacks within the Chinese territory before the Games opened."
He also allegedly "sent dozens of terrorist teams to some Middle East and west Asian countries to raise funds and buy explosive materials for terrorist attacks against Chinese targets outside Chinese territory."
Others accused include 33-year-old university graduate Tuersun Toheti, an alleged bomb maker blamed for planning attacks on Chinese targets outside the country.
Li Wei, a counterterrorism expert at a Chinese government-backed think tank, said Tuesday's announcement was a sign of China's sustained commitment to defeating the extremists following the end of the Olympics.
"China's major investment in Olympic security has helped them apprehend evidence of potential terrorist activity," he said.