BEIJING (AP) — Police in China's tense far west announced a crackdown on weapons as well as rewards for information on "terrorist" threats following recent deadly unrest, while state media raised alarms with reports that local militants were fighting and training abroad.
Clashes in recent months have killed at least 56 people in Xinjiang, a region that has long been home to a simmering rebellion against Chinese rule among parts of the Muslim Uighur population. The unrest comes ahead of the fourth anniversary of riots in the regional capital, Urumqi, in which the government says almost 200 people were killed.
China's state media have ratcheted up rhetoric, blaming the violence on "terrorism, extremism and separatism" and carrying reports that some Uighurs are gaining war-fighting experience in Syria.
The Global Times, published by the ruling Communist Party, cited a Chinese anti-terrorism official who said around 100 Uighurs had traveled to Syria to fight alongside Syrian rebels over the past year.
In a separate story Tuesday, the newspaper quoted Syrian Ambassador to China Imad Moustafa as saying that at least 30 members of the militant group East Turkistan Islamic Movement, which seeks independence for Xinjiang (shihn-jeeahng), had entered Syria to fight government forces in Aleppo. According to the report, Moustafa said the Uighur (WEE'-gur) militants received training in a border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and then went on to Syria via southern Turkey.
As with many developments in the tightly controlled region, the reports could not be independently verified. Calls to the Syrian Embassy rang unanswered as did calls to Xinjiang's regional government propaganda offices and spokespeople's mobile phones.
Raffaello Pantucci, an expert on China and Central Asia at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank, said it was not implausible that some Uighurs who identify with radical Islamist ideology might participate in the Syrian conflict.
Turkey, which borders Syria, has a sizable Uighur diaspora, many of them exiles disgruntled with Beijing. Pantucci said the Syrian war is attracting religious extremists around the world.
"Syria is an extraordinary magnet for international jihadists and international extremists," he said. "That there are Uighurs who are probably radicalized going into the battlefield in Syria is not entirely surprising. But whether this is an organized thing from the East Turkistan movement or its elements, it's difficult to know."
Terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna said the East Turkistan Islamic Movement is believed to have only about 100 members and is based in Pakistan, with support from a few hundred other people.
But rather than being driven purely by religious extremism, unrest in Xinjiang is largely fueled by tensions and anger over Beijing's policies in the region, said Gunaratna, who heads a terrorism research center in Singapore. He added that the government's hardline approach could be driving people to join separatist groups.
"There is a significant amount of tension. This itself is creating the protests, the riots and the mob violence and that is in many ways generating support and recruits for ETIM," Gunaratna said. "The political environment itself has deteriorated and China has to address this not only as a pure terrorism issue but more as an inter-ethnic, inter-religious issue."
In the bloodiest recent clash, 35 people were killed last week when a group of assailants attacked a police station and government offices in the eastern Xinjiang town of Lukqun, the government said.
Xinjiang's police announced Tuesday that they were confiscating daggers and knives with blades longer than 22 centimeters (8.6 inches) as well as guns, bullets, grenades, explosives and other weapons. The notice also demanded the surrender of materials promoting terrorist ideology, and computers, cellphones and other devices containing such content.
Police on Tuesday also offered rewards of up to $16,300 for information on terrorist activity that helps solve major terror crimes or leads to the arrest of terror suspects, according to a separate notice issued on the region's official news portal, Tianshan Net. Those who knowingly harbor, protect or help "violent terrorist criminals" will be prosecuted, police said.
China has responded to the unrest with a massive show of force, pouring even more security into the already tightly controlled region.
State media have shown fleets of armored anti-riot vehicles and trucks loaded with paramilitary police forces rolling along main streets. Hundreds or thousands of gun-toting, helmeted troops were shown assembled on a public square in Urumqi being sworn-in before they were deployed for patrols.
An overseas Uighur activist, Dilxat Raxit, said China was relying on force and surveillance to impose order and repress the Uighur community and that such an approach would only fuel conflict. "China must change its policies of suppression and economic colonialism and respect Uighurs," he said in an email.