BEIJING (AP) — Investigators found no foreign links to extremist violence in northwestern China's Xinjiang region last week in which 25 people died, state media said Thursday, diverging from past claims that attacks there are orchestrated overseas.
The investigation into the April 23 violence concluded that "the terrorists had no connection with foreign forces," Xinjiang government spokesman Hou Hanmin was quoted as saying by the China Daily newspaper.
China has said the assailants, 25 of whom have either been killed or arrested, were inspired by jihadi propaganda and were planning a major attack before being discovered by local government workers in the town of Selibuya, about 3,300 kilometers (2,050 miles) west of Beijing.
Hou's statement raises the specter of a home-grown terrorist movement inspired by calls for an Islamic holy war, but not directly connected to or acting under the orders of overseas-based separatists or insurgent groups. That appears to challenge official claims that violence in Xinjiang is not a result of ethnic or religious tensions but rather the work of meddling outsiders seeking to destabilize the region.
Xinjiang's native Muslim Turkic Uighur population is culturally, religiously, and linguistically distinct from China's Han majority, and many Uighurs claim they are being marginalized and oppressed by Han migration and heavy-handed rule by Beijing.
China has consistently linked Xinjiang violence to the global jihadi movement and overseas Uighur activists, but has provided little hard evidence. Among its claims is that July 2009 rioting in the regional capital Urumqi that left almost 200 people dead was directed by Rebiya Kadeer, an activist for Xinjiang's native Uighur ethnic group based in the U.S. Kadeer denies any connection to the riot that was by-far the bloodiest outbreak of violence in Xinjiang in more than a decade.
Police earlier said the men in last week's attack held secret Quran study sessions and possessed extremist religious literature and flags bearing jihadi slogans, providing justification for its strict rules on Islam in Xinjiang. The men killed 19 police and community workers after their bomb-making materials were discovered, then attacked local government offices and a police station.
Official accounts appear to show that those slain were unaware of the men's intentions and underestimated the level of risk. The attackers were quickly described by the authorities as terrorists — a label critics say China applies freely to non-violent dissenters as well as common criminals.
Despite the lack of a direct overseas link, last month's attack was clearly inspired by Xinjiang independence forces as seen in the literature and DVDs found in their homes that could only have been produced abroad, said Li Wei, director of the Anti-Terrorism Research Center of at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a think tank affiliated with China's main intelligence agency, the Ministry of State Security.
"These terrorist acts are inspired by terroristic and violent thoughts from abroad, while a small number of anti-government individuals and groups with extremist ideologies still exist in Xinjiang," Li said.
A leading Uighur group based in Germany has called for an independent investigation into the attack, saying China has consistently failed to provide convincing evidence for its terrorism claims that it uses to justify for tougher security measures.
"The World Uyghur Congress urges the international community to uphold its pressure on China in an effort to see Beijing stop applying its same pattern of information black out, arbitrary detentions and forced disappearances after each incident in the region," said a statement from the group, which uses an alternative spelling for Uighur.
A sprawling region that borders Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Xinjiang sees recurrent violence pitting members of the Turkic Muslim Uighur (pronounced WEE'-gur) group against the authorities and Han migrants. Among other restrictions, China imposes strict rules on Uighur religious life, including barring children and government employees from mosques, ordering young men to trim their beards and banning the wearing of veils by women.
Beijing says it treats minorities fairly and spends billions of dollars on improving living standards in minority areas.