(CNSNews.com) – The Chinese government has acknowledged that a deadly car wreck in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on Monday was not an accident, officially calling it a “terrorist attack” and announcing the arrest of five suspects linked to China’s far-western Xinjiang Muslim region.
The admission came after several days of apparent efforts by the communist authorities to cover up the incident, both at the scene and on social media networks.
A spokesman for Beijing’s security bureau said a man, his wife and his mother had intentionally driven an SUV into a crowd of people and set gasoline inside the vehicle alight, killing themselves and two others, and injuring another 40 people.
He said police had found knives, “steel sticks” and a flag bearing “extremist religious content” inside the car.
Police described the incident as a “carefully planned, organized and premeditated” attack by religious extremists from Xinjiang, the Global Times reported.
A report in the Communist Party-affiliated paper also referred to “the authorities’ swift move to inform the public of the attack.”
“A brief account of the fatal incident was released online within two hours of the incident on Monday,” it said. “More details emerged on Wednesday.”
That appeared to be an attempt to counter some of the criticism that met the authorities’ initial handling of the incident, which occurred near the gate at the north of the square, leading to the Forbidden City, near an iconic giant portrait of Mao Zedong.
According to Reporters Without Borders, a press freedom watchdog, police immediately erected screens to hide the wrecked car from view, and brief mentions in official media referred only to a “traffic incident.”
Police also briefly detained a BBC crew trying to film and deleted photo and film footage taken by French wire service journalists, while Beijing’s censorship machine swung into action online.
“Every effort was made to censor information about the incident, which was the subject of a great deal of comment on the Internet, above all on social networks including Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter,” the group said.
“Photos of the incident were removed from microblogs and Internet connection speeds were slowed right down.”
“We deplore the way the authorities illegally detain journalists and confiscate their material,” it said. “In the era of new technologies and social networks, it is pointless using such methods to try to hush up such a major event. The authorities need to realize that media coverage of such events does not threaten them.”
A terror attack at the sensitive site – essentially Beijing’s equivalent to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. – would be a major embarrassment to the security-conscious regime.
Xinjiang (“new frontier”) province is home to about 10 million Uighurs (Uyghurs), Turkic-speaking Muslims who briefly exercised independence as East Turkistan in 1933 and again in 1944, but whose homeland came under communist Chinese rule in 1949.
Critics of China’s policies in Xinjiang, which include the encouragement of settlement there by millions of Han Chinese, say they have undermined Uighurs’ cultural and religious identity, mirroring similar claims made with regard to Tibet.
Bigger than Alaska, Xinjiang comprises one-sixth of modern China’s territory, and is its richest region in strategic minerals.
In 2009 Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, was roiled by clashes between Uighurs and Han, sparked by protests over the deaths of two Uighurs elsewhere in China. Almost 200 people were killed.
At least one Uighur separatist organization, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), has links to al-Qaeda, and the U.S. in 2002 designated it under an executive order designed to disrupt funding to terrorists by freezing assets in the U.S.
Twenty-two Uighurs were among hundreds of suspected terrorists detained by the U.S. military during the campaign that toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan after 9/11. (The U.S. later determined that the Uighurs were not “enemy combatants” and, fearing that they would face torture or execution if returned to China, looked for third countries willing to take them. Some were later accepted by Albania, Bermuda, Palau and Switzerland.)
Beijing has long sought to associate all Uighurs advocating greater autonomy or independence with terrorist groups, and the U.S. has on occasion accused China of using counterterrorism as a pretext for repression against Uighurs, whether or not they support radicals.
On Wednesday Rebiya Khadeer, the exiled leader of the World Uyghur Congress, issued a statement expressing sadness at the loss of life in Beijing – and concern about how the authorities would react.
“The Chinese government will not hesitate to concoct a version of the incident in Beijing, so as to further impose repressive measures on the Uyghur people,” she said. “Chinese officials commandeered the war on terror for its own cynical purposes to justify harsh measures against the Uyghurs in East Turkestan.”
Khadeer, a businesswoman and dissident, was imprisoned for six years for “leaking state secrets” before China released her in 2005 and allowed her to travel to the U.S.
Since then, Beijing periodically accuses her of fomenting violence in Xinjiang, reviling both her and the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, as agents of the “three evils” of separatism, terrorism and extremism.