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Citing threat to Games, China is on war footing

Times Staff Writer

In China, the preparations for the Olympics look more like a military deployment than arrangements for a sporting event.

The government is installing surface-to-air missiles near the stadiums and setting up checkpoints to stop out-of-town cars from entering Beijing. It has enlisted 110,000 security personnel and more than 1 million citizens to protect the Games against what it says are credible terrorist threats.

Unmanned drones are to patrol the skies above Beijing for the duration of the Games, from Aug. 8 to Aug. 24. The 800-mile border with North Korea will be sealed, according to reports from South Korea. Beijing’s airport will be closed during the opening ceremony to enforce a “no fly” zone around the city.

Fears of terrorism during the Games were heightened Monday after explosions on buses in the southern city of Kunming. No suspects have been named in the attacks that killed two people, a 30-year-old woman on her way to her daughter’s fifth birthday party and a 26-year-old man.

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In May, three people were killed in a bus explosion in Shanghai, and in March, authorities said the crew of a China Southern airliner had foiled a plot to blow up the plane flying from Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region, to Beijing.

“The Beijing Olympics is facing a terrorist threat unsurpassed in Olympic history,” declared a recent story in the People’s Daily, a Communist Party newspaper.

But Chinese authorities have released little information about the threat. The secrecy has led some critics to speculate whether the government has hyped the danger to justify its repression of dissent, particularly by Tibetans or Uighurs, a Muslim minority of Turkic ethnicity based in Xinjiang, in northwestern China.

“This is the oldest trick in all authoritarian regimes. They create a narrative of about how unidentified enemies are plotting against them to legitimize strong-arm policies,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch. “Now they are really stretching themselves to claim there is a connection with the Olympics in order to win international sympathy.”

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Human Rights Watch is due to release a report this week criticizing China’s claims about terrorism threats.

“Beijing has hijacked the “war on terror” to rationalize its own actions,” editorialized the Taipei Times, the main English-language newspaper in Taiwan.

Two Uighurs were executed July 9 in Xinjiang, according to Radio Free Asia. Many others have been shot dead in confrontations with police.

This month in Urumqi, police burst into an apartment and “found themselves face to face with 15 knife-wielding Uighurs, all shouting “sacrifice for Allah,” a police spokesman told the official New China News Agency. The spokesman said that the suspects refused to surrender and “the policemen were then forced to open fire, killing five on the spot.”

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Official media reports about terrorism and security are a staple of pre-Olympic coverage. Some reports have warned of plots to kidnap athletes or foreign journalists and to blow up airplanes and hotels.

Compared with the United States or Europe, China has relatively little experience with terrorism. Most incidents so far have been relatively small and blamed on disaffected individuals or poorly financed local groups.

But some experts believe that China is a ripe target for international terrorists because of its growing economic and political power, its communist ideology and the discontent among some Chinese Muslims.

“The jihadists increasingly view China as an enemy of Islam,” said Rohan Gunaratna, a Singapore-based counter-terrorism expert and author of a book about Al Qaeda. “They feel they managed to defeat the 1990s Soviet Union, they will soon defeat the United States; and the next challenge will be China.”

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Much of the concern centers on the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, a separatist group that was blamed for a string of bombings in Xinjiang in the 1990s but that has been dormant in recent years.

Members of the group, whose name is based on the Uighur term for their homeland, and other Uighur activists have fled westward into Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Pakistan, and China alleges that they have been training with Al Qaeda. Up to 22 members had been held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, but some have been released for lack of evidence.

China fears that the group may have resuscitated itself with training and financing from Al Qaeda operatives abroad.

Ma Zhenchuan, security director for the Olympic Games, was quoted Monday in the English-language China Daily as saying intelligence had been received about planned attacks.

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“It is not imaginary,” Ma said.

Gunaratna said that there is evidence that a Pakistani was involved in the foiled attack on the China Southern Airlines flight from Urumqi to Beijing on March 7. Two young Uighur women, who are alleged to have smuggled gasoline aboard in soda cans, were arrested.

Terrorism experts say the Shanghai bus bombing in May is believed to have been an isolated incident. There is more concern about Monday’s attack in Kunming, in southern China’s Yunnan province, because there were two bombs. One witness told a Chinese news service that a man shouted to the bus driver: “I want to get off!” and left behind a worn black leather bag.

The two explosions took place at 7:10 a.m. and 8:05 a.m. on the same line running through downtown Kunming.

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Zhang Jiadong, a terrorism expert at Shanghai’s Fudan University, said any Olympic-related attacks probably would take place outside Beijing because of the tight security imposed in the capital.

“The Chinese government is very much afraid,” Zhang said.

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barbara.demick@latimes.com

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Eliot Gao of The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.


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