Grenade attack kills 16 policemen on Chinese border Tania Branigan in Beijing guardian.co.uk, Monday August 4 2008 Suspected terrorists today killed 16 policemen and injured 16 more in north-west China's restive region of Xinjiang, the state media have reported. The attack appears to be the most serious incident in the area for several years. Two assailants used a dump truck to target a paramilitary border police station in Kashgar, running down and then stabbing a team of policemen on their morning drills before exploding grenades, the state news agency Xinhua said. The area is already under tightened security in the run-up to the Olympics, which begin in just four days. The authorities have repeatedly accused Uighur Muslim separatists seeking an independent "East Turkestan" of plotting violent attacks and recently claimed to have arrested 82 people in Xinjiang this year in connection with terrorism. Human rights campaigners and Uighur exiles have argued that the government has exaggerated the threat of violence, and blurred the distinction between extremism, pro-independence arguments and cultural expression to justify repression in the region. Xinhua reported that the attackers struck as paramilitary police were on their morning drills in front of the Yijin hotel, just outside their station. As the lorry veered off the road, the attackers jumped out, throwing at least two grenades into the barracks and hacking at the policemen with knives. Fourteen officers were killed on the spot and two more died on the way to hospital. The raiders were arrested. "This is the most serious incident recorded in years," said Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch, who has closely followed developments in the region. "Ahead of the Olympics, it is a very powerful symbolic attack because security in Xinjiang is at an all-time high." Xinhua claimed today that the region's public security bureau had clues suggesting that the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (Etim) planned attacks in the run-up to the Olympic opening ceremony on Friday. A 100,000-strong security force is on standby in Beijing, which lies around 2,500 miles away from Kashgar, China's western-most city. But terrorism experts had suggested that tight security in the capital meant attacks were more likely elsewhere. Kashgar, known to the Chinese as Kashi, is an old Silk Road city and an area with a history of Uighur separatist activity. Turkic-speaking Uighur Muslims form around 8 million of the 19 million population in Xinjiang, a vast mineral-rich region which covers a sixth of China's territory. Many resent controls on religion and growing Han Chinese immigration. Andrew Gilholm, senior China analyst at the Control Risks consultancy, said Uighur militants were the most likely explanation for today's attack, but cautioned against linking it to other alleged terrorist plots. "This sounds like exactly the kind of thing that happened in the 90s. I would view this as suggesting localised resurgence in Xinjiang of the capability we know about that has been suppressed in the last few years. I don't see much grounds to connect it with other things that have happened recently," he said. Colin Mackerras, an expert on the region and emeritus professor at Griffith University, Australia, said relations between Uighurs and Han Chinese in the region had worsened since a security clampdown in the late 90s, which followed sporadic violence by separatists. "There's nervousness and tension among both Uighurs and Chinese ... I think support for the kind of incidents that will embarrass the Chinese has grown," he said. "There's an independence movement, but I don't expect it to succeed and don't expect many people will want to take part, because they expect it to fail and know the result will be more repression." Both the United Nations and United States have deemed the Etim a terrorist organisation. But several analysts suggest its links to al-Qaida and its general strength were overstated and have since dwindled. "There are quite a few groups and the Chinese usually lump them all together as Etim," said Mackerras. Others suggest it is too soon to label the incident as terrorism at all. "We don't know if this was a revenge attack because a tribe got attacked; it is quite tribal there. There could be a number of reasons for this," said Dr Andrew Fischer, a specialist on western China at LSE. Asked about the implications of the Kashgar incident this morning, Beijing Olympic organisers said they were confident that the capital was secure because of their preparations. "We have strengthened security in all Olympic venues and in the Olympic village. We are well-prepared to deal with any kinds of threats," said official Sun Weide. Last week, the Chinese officer in charge of Olympics security said that "East Turkestan terrorist groups" represented the greatest threat to the Games. But on the same day, Kuerxi Maihesuti, vice-governor of the region, told reporters: "There are only a very small number of sabotage activities in Xinjiang and many were nipped in the bud." The government has also played down the recent emergence of a video in which men identifying themselves as the little-known Turkestan Islamic party claimed responsibility for bus blasts in China and threatening more attacks during the Olympics. Officials said that explosions in Shanghai in May and Kunming last month had been deliberate but not terrorist-related.