Wednesday, 27 September 2000

URUMCHI EXPLOSION: MILITARY ACCIDENT OR ACT OF UYGHUR TERRORISM?

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By Alim Seytoff (9/27/2000 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: According China’s People’s Daily, a military truck belonging to the People’s Liberation Army Reservist Force, exploded as it carried explosives for disposal on September 8 in Urumchi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. This catastrophic explosion took place during Friday's rush hour at 7:38 p.m.

BACKGROUND: According China’s People’s Daily, a military truck belonging to the People’s Liberation Army Reservist Force, exploded as it carried explosives for disposal on September 8 in Urumchi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. This catastrophic explosion took place during Friday's rush hour at 7:38 p.m. (Xinjiang Time) at Xishan Road. More than 60 people were killed and several hundred were wounded. Those who died in the explosion included PLA soldiers, passengers, and school children from nearby Urumchi Numberi 33 Elementary School. Some 20 trucks clogged in a rush hour traffic jam were completely incinerated by the blast and houses nearby were damaged.

Immediately after the explosion, the Chinese government ordered a media blackout and issued directives to the Xinjiang media to strictly follow Xinhua News Agency’s official interpretation of the explosion. On September 9, Chinese authorities said it was too early to determine if Uyghur "separatists" were involved in the explosion, although they did not rule out the possibility of terrorism. The same day, Xinhua News Agency officially reported casualty toll at 60 people killed and 309 wounded. But only one day later, Xinhua released new casualty figures that reduced the total number of wounded to 173 while keeping the death toll the same. Xinhua gave no explanation for the amended toll.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Sun Yuxi said on September 12 that the deadly explosion in Urumchi was "purely an accident", and not a terrorist attack. According to Sun Yuxi, no traces of an artificial trigger of the explosion was found on site. However, she did not confirm that the vehicle carrying the explosives belonged to the Chinese army. According Xinhua on September 13, groups of experts thoroughly examined the explosion scene and forensic evidence to determine that it was the "bumpy road" that caused the fatal explosion even though apparently the military truck was stuck in rush hour traffic. Xinhua also would not state whether the vehicle that blew up belonged to the Chinese military but said explosives on the truck were intended for training members of a local militia.

IMPLICATIONS: The blast coincided with the annual Urumchi Trade Fair as well as the upcoming Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival. The timing of the blast led to speculation that it was caused by Uyghur "separatists" who demand independence from China and the establishment of an independent state of "Eastern Turkestan." Other Uyghur "separatist" bombings have taken place around Chinese holidays or important commemorations. Just before the Chinese Spring Festival in 1992, two bombs exploded in Urumchi public buses killing a number of people and injuring dozens more. The Chinese government immediately blamed the Uyghur "separatists" and executed the "perpetuators". On February 25, 1997 just a few weeks after a bloody three-day clash in Ghulja (Ili), three buses simultaneously exploded in Urumchi killing nine people on board and injuring 74. These explosions coincided with the death of Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader who initiated reform in China for last two decades. Uyghur "separatists" were blamed, even though no Uyghur organization claimed responsibility.

Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji, while visiting the injured at an Urumchi hospital on September 10, said, "The government will take a responsible attitude towards handling this accident". The following day, China used the explosion to call on Turkey to help fight separatism in Xinjiang. Xinhua reported that Chinese Vice President Hu Jintao, while meeting with Turkish Defense Minister Sabahattin Cakmakoglu, stated that jointly fighting separatism was in the interests of their two countries. China places great emphasis on its relations with Turkey, partly to stave off Uyghur political organizations in Turkey supporting Uyghur "separatism" in Xinjiang.

The People’s Daily reported on September 13 that Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji called for a crackdown on Uyghur "separatists" that are fighting for an independent Eastern Turkestan in Xinjiang. Zhu Rongji said an "iron fist" should be used to crack down on "separatists, religious fundamentalists and terrorists", to ensure the success of government’s plan to develop its economically backward western provinces. The irony of this statement is that Zhu Rongji made his strong statement against Uyghur "separatists" right after the Chinese government ruled out Uyghur "separatist" involvement in Urumchi explosion.

CONCLUSION: The September 8 blast in Urumchi was one of the worst explosions in recent Chinese history. Whether it was an accident as the Chinese government claims or an act of terrorism as some suspect, it is a direct blow to the Chinese government who has been actively sponsoring its "Go West Campaign" to develop Xinjiang economically. The deadly explosion in Urumchi left the Chinese government extremely embarrassed as both explanations, military accident and terrorist act by "separatists," are equally damaging. The deadly blast shows that Beijing is unable to go beyond its crisis management capability, responding passively to unexpected occurrences and failing to come up with lasting solutions.

The inconsistencies and confusion in the aftermath of the explosion ranging from the number of dead and wounded, the refusal to give out victim’s identities, the ownership military vehicle, the timing and place of the blast, plus Chinese government’s use of the explosion to target Uyghur "separatists", makes one wonder what really happened in Urumchi. In short, the Chinese government failed to give a credible and satisfactory account of the Urumchi explosion. Instead of holding the responsible Chinese military officers for interrogation or arrest after they callously endangered so many lives by ordering the explosives transported through downtown Urumchi during Friday’s rush hour, the Chinese government called for a tough crackdown on Uyghur "separatists." Yet Uyghurs "separatists" were ultimately not held responsible for the blast this time. In contrast, they are blamed for almost every other problem facing China in Xinjiang.

AUTHOR BIO: Alim Seytoff is an international broadcaster/reporter for the Uyghur Service of Radio Free Asia in Washington, D.C. A Uyghur who was born and raised in Xinjiang, Seytoff lived in Xinjiang’s capital Urumchi most of his life. 

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The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.

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