BEIJING — The Chinese authorities announced on Wednesday the arrests of five suspects who they say helped orchestrate an audacious attack near Tiananmen Square that left five people dead.
The Beijing Public Security Bureau said the arrested men, all ethnic Uighurs from China’s western Xinjiang region, had enlisted a family of three to drive a vehicle across a crowded sidewalk on Monday and then ignite the car at the foot of the Tiananmen gate.
Two tourists were killed and 40 people were injured as the vehicle sped towards the entrance to the Forbidden City, just yards from the iconic portrait of Chairman Mao. The authorities had previously reported 38 injuries.
The occupants of the car — identified by the police as Usmen Hasan; his wife, Gulkiz Gini; and his mother, Kuwanhan Reyim, — died as it went up in flames. The police say that in addition to gasoline and a gas canister, investigators recovered from the vehicle two knives, metal clubs and a banner bearing ‘religious extremist messages’. The police did not disclose the content of those messages.
“This was a violent terrorist act that was carefully planned and organised,” the statement said.
Arrest and ‘confession’
The police said the five men were arrested at an undisclosed location on Monday, 10 hours after the attack, and had confessed their involvement. They said investigators had discovered long knives and what they called a ‘jihadist’ flag in the temporary residence where the suspects were staying. It is unclear why the authorities delayed the announcement of the arrests by more than a day.
The news was released after work hours, and the police did not immediately respond to a faxed request for comment.
The attack is likely to prompt heightened security in Xinjiang, home to most of China’s ethnic Uighurs, Turkic-speaking people. Uighurs have long had an uneasy coexistence with the ruling Han Chinese majority. But tensions have increased in recent years, fuelled by a surge in Han migration to the region, a widening income gap and anger over policies that many locals say marginalise Uighur culture and traditions.
The Chinese government often portrays any resistance to its policies in Xinjiang as acts of separatism. Violent clashes between protesters and the police are invariably described as terrorism. It is believed the violence is a response to increasingly harsh policies that restrict religious practices and favour Mandarin over the Uighur language in schools.
Shift in violence
But until the Tiananmen attack, most of the violence had been confined to Xinjiang, nearly 2,000 miles from the Chinese capital.
Ilham Tohti, a Uighur scholar in Beijing, said he worried that the authorities would use the event to increase repression in Xinjiang. “I’m very concerned for what comes next,” he said.
“I have a lot of questions about what happened,” he said in a telephone interview. “It’s easy to point to a banner, but we’re only getting one side of the story.”