Smoke rises after an SUV crashed into pedestrians and burst into flames at Tiananmen Square, Beijing. (Reuters)
Beijing, Oct. 29 (Reuters): Chinese authorities investigating what could be Beijing’s first major suicide attack were searching for two men from Muslim-dominated Xinjiang today after three persons suspected to be from the restive region drove a SUV into a crowd at Tiananmen Square and set it on fire.
They killed themselves and two tourists yesterday in the square, the heart of China’s power structure and the focal point of the mass 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations brutally crushed the military.
Police have spread a dragnet across the capital, checking hotels and vehicles, seeking two people suspected to be ethnic Uighurs, a Muslim minority from Xinjiang in China’s far west, on the borders of ex-Soviet Central Asia.
Two senior sources said today the crash, that also injured 38 bystanders at perhaps the most closely guarded location in China, was suspected of being a suicide attack carried out by people from Xinjiang. It was initially believed to be an accident.
The sources did not specifically say the occupants were Uighurs, many of whom chafe at Chinese controls on their culture and religion.
“It looks like a pre-meditated suicide attack,” said a source with direct knowledge of the matter, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid repercussions for talking to the foreign media.
There have been suicide bombings before in China, and in Beijing, mostly by people will personal grievances, but none have targetted the very heart of China’s government like this appears to have.
China has blamed Uighur separatists and religious extremists for a series of attacks in Xinjiang, saying they want to establish an independent state called East Turkestan. Rights groups and exiles say China massively over-states the threat. In 2009, nearly 200 people were killed in clashes between Uighurs and ethnic Chinese in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang.
But the unrest has never before spilled over into the nation’s capital, despite speculation in 1997 that Uighurs were to blame for a Beijing bus bomb in which at least two people died. Uighurs are also not known to have previously carried out any suicide attacks.
The government has given no official word whether it was an accident or an attack, and state media has mostly kept to reporting brief statements from the police and official Xinhua news agency giving a bare bones account of what happened, as is common for such sensitive events.
Police are still investigating and have yet to determine the identities of the three people in the sport utility vehicle but suspect they are from Xinjiang, according to the sources. The other dead were a Chinese man and a Filipina woman, both tourists.
Police said yesterday the sport utility vehicle veered off the road at the north of the square, crossed the barriers and caught fire almost directly in front of the main entrance of the Forbidden City, in front of a huge portrait of the founder of Communist China, Mao Zedong.
Pictures seen by Reuters showed that the vehicle appeared to have driven several hundred metres along the pedestrian pavement in front of the Forbidden City entrance before bursting into flames, knocking down people as it went.
One eyewitness, who asked not to be identified due to the incident’s sensitive nature, said she saw the vehicle knock down three or four people, and that it had a white banner with black lettering on it streaming from the back.