By Paul Eckert
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The exiled leader of China's Uighur ethnic minority community called on Wednesday for an international investigation into an incident in which a car ploughed into pedestrians in Beijing, after Chinese authorities arrested five suspected Uighurs over the attack.
The SUV vehicle burst into flames after being driven into a crowd on Tiananmen Square on Monday. The three occupants and two bystanders were killed, while dozens were injured. Police said it was a terrorist attack.
Rebiya Kadeer, president of the Munich-based World Uighur Congress, called the attack tragic but was equivocal on whether Uighurs - a Muslim people from China's far western region of Xinjiang - had carried it out.
Kadeer, who lives in the Washington area, warned against accepting at face value China's account of the incident.
"Chinese claims simply cannot be accepted as facts without an independent and international investigation of what took place in Beijing on Monday," Kadeer said.
China, which almost certainly will ignore Kadeer's call for an international investigation, said it caught five suspected Islamist militants - all of whom have names that suggest they are Uighur. Chinese authorities have also moved to tighten security in Xinjiang.
Asked whether she believed Uighurs were responsible, Kadeer said: "Maybe and maybe not. It is difficult to tell at the moment, given the strict control of information by the Chinese government on this tragic incident."
"If the Uighurs did it, I believe they did it out of desperation because there is no channel for the Uighur people to seek redress for any kind of injustice they had suffered under Chinese rule," she added.
Her comments were made in written replies to Reuters questions, translated from the Uighur language by an aide.
Kadeer is a former Chinese political prisoner accused of leaking state secrets in 1999 who left China on medical parole and settled near Washington with her husband and part of her family in 2005. The 66-year-old mother of 11 previously had been a celebrated millionaire who had advised China's parliament.
Kadeer said she feared the Tiananmen Square attack would join a long list of incidents that China uses "to justify its heavy-handed repression" in her native region, which she said was not alone in chafing under tight government control.
"We see the desperation not only in East Turkestan but in Tibet and other parts of China as well," she said.
East Turkestan is the name Uighurs call the vast, resource-rich Xinjiang region that borders Afghanistan, Pakistan and the former Soviet Central Asian republics. Part of the area had brief independence in the 1940s as the East Turkestan Republic.
"This is an overall problem in China, not specific to Uighurs," she said, noting some 150 self-immolations by Tibetans and numerous violent incidents by Chinese protesting land seizures and corruption.
"The root cause of the problem in East Turkestan, as in Tibet, is the colonial rule of the Chinese government and implementation of policies of cultural genocide - such as the systematic attacks on our language, culture, identity, values and religious beliefs," she said.
China denies accusations of repression of minorities and blames separatist Uighur militants for provoking violence in Xinjiang.
Kadeer, however, said, "I don't believe there is any kind of organized extremist Islamic movement operating in East Turkestan. It is almost impossible for Uighurs to organize because of China's stringent controls and attacks."
China's approach to Xinjiang has hardened over the past 12 years, creating an atmosphere "like a war zone", she said.
"Fully armed Chinese soldiers patrol Uighur neighborhoods, villages and towns. They frequently attack Uighurs and extrajudicially kill them in any kind of confrontation," Kadeer added.
(Editing by Warren Strobel, Will Dunham and Dean Yates)