BEIJING – China said Monday it had launched an international manhunt for the alleged mastermind behind an attack at a train station last month blamed on extremists from the Muslim Turkic Uighur ethnic group.
The official China Daily newspaper and other state media said a request had been submitted to Interpol for the arrest of Ismail Yusup and an unspecified number of associates.
The report said that Yusup was a member of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement and organized the April 30 attack in the capital of the northwestern Xinjiang region that killed three people and injured 79 others.
Beijing says an organized militancy with elements based overseas is behind a rising number of terrorist attacks in the country. However, little evidence has been provided to back up the claim and many analysts doubt such an organization exists in a form that would enable it to organize attacks.
China had previously said the attack, in which explosives and knives were used, was carried out by two religious extremists who were killed in the blast.
East Turkistan is the name used for Xinjiang by some members of the region's native Uighur (pronounced WEE'-gur) ethnic group, extremists among which have been fighting for years a low-intensity insurgency against Chinese rule.
The U.S. initially placed the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, known as ETIM, on a terrorist watch list following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but later quietly removed it amid doubts that it existed in any organized manner. It is still listed as a terrorist group by the United Nations, over which China has considerable sway as one of five permanent veto-holding members of the Security Council.
China Daily and other state media outlets said Yusup ordered 10 "partners" in Xinjiang to prepare for the attack in the city of Urumqi about a week before it happened. The 10 set off explosives and slashed people with knives at the station exit on the evening of April 30, the reports said. Two of the members were killed in the explosion and the remaining eight were captured by police, it said.
The Xinjiang Daily newspaper said Yusup formed an extremist group in 2005 and began conspiring with members of ETIM in 2012. It said he formally joined the group last year when he fled China after a warrant was issued for his arrest.
The reports didn't say where Yusup was hiding or give other details about his identity. However, a number of Uighur extremists are believed to be living in Pakistan's northwest alongside Islamic extremists linked to the Taliban and al-Qaida.
Uighur extremists have been blamed for a rising tide of violence in Xinjiang and other parts of China, including the capital Beijing. In another high-profile attack blamed on Xinjiang extremists, five knife-wielding men and women slashed at crowds indiscriminately at a railway station in the southwestern city of Kunming in March, killing 29 people.
While Beijing faults separatists for raising ethnic tensions, government critics say restrictive and discriminatory religious, cultural and economic policies have alienated the Uighurs. A flood of migrants from China's majority Han ethnic group have largely marginalized Uighurs in their homeland and excluded them from decision-making. Such resentment has been stoked by international jihadist propaganda, creating conditions for violence beyond the ability of the massive Chinese security apparatus to predict and prevent.
Beijing has responded with an overwhelming security presence and additional restrictions on Uighur travel rights, culture and religious practices.
There was no immediate word from Interpol of its handling of the Chinese request and Yusup was not listed as a wanted person on its website as of midday Monday. China's Ministry of National Security, which overseas contacts with Interpol, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
China has increased its cooperation with the international police agency amid efforts to curb corruption by fugitive government officials and crack down on illegal gambling and forgery.
Interpol President Mireille Ballestrazzi met with senior Chinese government and law enforcement officials during a visit last month aimed at boosting joint efforts. Last September, China hosted its first Interpol training session to combat trafficking in illicit goods.