BEIJING – Security forces from China and two Central Asian neighbors practiced hunting down violent separatists in a counterterrorism drill along a border area where ethnic Muslim rebels have staged attacks against Beijing's rule, the government said Saturday.
Friday's one-day exercise involved forces from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as well as China and took place along their borders in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang, the government and media reports said.
The scenario called on the three countries to coordinate a manhunt for anti-China separatists who had set up a training camp on the Chinese side of the border, the China News Service said. Flushed out, the rebels hijacked a tourist bus that television footage showed black-suited tactical units storming, shattering the windows to get inside.
Hardly far-fetched, the drill contained situations Chinese security forces have previously encountered in trying to quash the sporadically violent, decades-long rebellion by largely Muslim Uighurs seeking independence for Xinjiang, or what they call East Turkestan.
Those "'East Turkestan' terror forces ... have never stopped threatening us, have ceaselessly plotted violent terrorist attacks, have formed terrorist cells inside the country and are waiting for the opportunity to launch terror attacks," the Ministry of Public Security said in a statement posted on its website about Friday's exercise.
The authoritarian government in Beijing has tried over the past decade to link its struggle against Xinjiang separatism to the wider U.S.-led campaign against militant Islamic terrorism.
Following Osama bin Laden's killing by U.S. commandos, Beijing renewed its appeals for international cooperation this past week, though Chinese foreign policy experts have voiced concern that with the terror leader gone, the United States will devote more efforts to containing China's growing ambitions.
Some among the more radical Uighurs trained in Taliban camps in Afghanistan prior to the U.S. invasion in 2001 and since then moved across the border in Pakistan.
Yet critics have said that Beijing is using the counterterrorism campaign to suppress nonviolent calls for independence and that its controls on the practice and teaching of Islam, the influx of Chinese migrants and security drills like Friday's have served to exacerbate resentment among more moderate Uighurs.
The latest drill was the second in five years conducted in Xinjiang under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a grouping that is comprised of four Central Asian neighbors as well as Russia and China. Beijing has used to project its influence into a strategic, volatile region rich in oil and gas.
Many member states have large Uighur populations. This past week, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan prevented at least five known Uighur activists from leaving to attend a gathering of Uighur exiles in Washington — in what rights groups said was a bow to Beijing's pressure. Officials told two of the activists in Kyrgyzstan that their trip would "harm Sino-Kyrgyz relations," the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress said.
Friday's exercise in Kashi, or Kashgar, an area of forbidding mountains and inviting oases that is the heartland of Uighur culture, involved helicopters and hooded police with semiautomatic weapons rapelling down cliffs. "This shows off China's professional counterterrorism combat forces," the public security statement said.