BEIJING (AP) — China is ordering a sweeping security clampdown in the western region of Xinjiang following recent deadly attacks blamed on Muslim ethnic Uighur militants, with Beijing vowing "no mercy" toward anyone pursuing violence or separatism.
Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu has ordered officials to mobilize all available resources and manpower to create a "high-pressure environment" in which to contain terrorism, official newspapers reported Friday.
"Those criminals who dare test the law with their persons and carry out violent terrorist acts, we will punish harshly, showing no mercy and never being soft," Meng was quoted as telling participants at an anti-terrorism conference Thursday in the regional capital of Urumqi.
Meng urged authorities to work to prevent violence in villages and cities though education and intelligence gathering. He vowed prosecutions for anyone threatening lives or property, pushing for separatism or undermining relations between minority Uighurs and majority Han Chinese settlers in the region.
"Stick out your antennae, weave a tight web of prevention and wipe out the hot beds of violent terrorism at their roots," said Meng, who presides over a large chunk of China's massive internal security budget, which has reportedly exceeded the official $91.5 billion defense budget.
The conference follows a trio of recent attacks blamed on militants among Xinjiang's native Turkic Muslim Uighur population opposed to heavy-handed Chinese rule. At least three dozen people, including the alleged attackers, were killed in the attacks in the cities of Hotan and Kashgar, which came just ahead of the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurs), are culturally, linguistically and religiously distinct from China's Han ethnic majority, and share many links with the native populations of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and other parts of Central Asia. Many deeply resent the Han Chinese majority as interlopers and see mass migration to the region as dooming them to minority status in their own homeland. A low-intensity separatist movement has existed for decades, but recent years appear to have ushered in an upsurge in violence.
The recent attacks came despite a massive security presence that was tightened following a major anti-Chinese riot in Urumqi two years ago in which at least 197 people were killed, hundreds arrested, and scores left missing.
Beijing blames the violence on militants based overseas, saying some trained in terrorist camps in neighboring Pakistan. China's naming of its longtime ally is seen as a move to bolster its claims and perhaps pressure Islamabad to increase pressure on militants within its borders.
Uighur activists and security analysts dispute that claim, saying there is no evidence of a foreign hand behind the attacks. They blame the violence on economic marginalization and restrictions on Uighur culture and the Muslim religion that are breeding frustration and anger among young Uighurs.
Similar complaints have been voiced by the indigenous populations of Tibet and Inner Mongolia, both seeing frequent, sometimes violent, ethnic protests in recent years.
"Claims of connections between radical Islamic groups in Pakistan and elsewhere are deliberately inflated so as to remove the focus from domestic sources of discontent and justify egregious and widespread human rights violations across the region," said Nicholas Bequelin, Hong Kong-based senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.
High-pressure tactics will only deepen resentment and further the spread of extremism, said Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the German-based World Uyghur Congress. Since the Kashgar attacks, Uighurs have been refused plane tickets at Urumqi airport and subject to random searches at bus stations and other public places, Raxit said, claims that could not immediately be confirmed.
"Especially coming during Ramadan, Uighurs just can't take it any more," Raxit said. "People will start to lose all hope and become more likely to make the wrong choices."