(AFP) – Apr 7, 2008
URUMQI, China (AFP) — Mystery continues to surround official reports of a deadly raid in Urumqi that saved the Beijing Olympics from a terrorist attack.
As China tells it, police burst into the Happiness Garden apartments in this northwestern city and raided a fourth-floor flat where "terrorists" were holed up.
But that's news to residents of the quiet middle-class compound in the dusty and remote Xinjiang region.
"No, no, no. There was nothing like that. That's nonsense," said a local resident, a member of the Muslim ethnic Uighur minority, when asked about the dramatic official version of the January 27 raid.
The man, whose name has been withheld to protect him from possible reprisals, was one of more than a dozen residents to question Chinese reports that Beijing said proved a terror threat in vast, heavily Muslim Xinjiang.
In an ensuing clash described by state-controlled press and Xinjiang's top Communist Party official, Wang Lequan, militants threw grenades at police, injuring seven officers.
Eventually, two militants were killed and another 15 captured by police.
Weapons, explosives and militant Islamic literature were allegedly seized in the raid, which made world headlines for its implications on Olympic security.
Strangely, however, it went largely unnoticed at Happiness Garden, whose flats are so tightly packed it would be difficult to keep anything from the neighbours.
The Uighur resident said he watched a van pull up, from which several men in plain clothes emerged, later escorting two people from the building and into the van.
There was no gunfire or explosions, he said.
His account was backed by at least one other resident, an ethnic Han Chinese woman. More than a dozen neighbours who were eager to discuss the case said they heard and saw nothing.
"It's very quiet here. Everybody would have heard something like that," said the Chinese woman.
AFP contacted the police station that has jurisdiction over Happiness Garden, as well as the regional police headquarters and the Public Security Ministry in Beijing for more information about the raid.
None gave any comment.
China has released only bare details of the raid -- and of separate allegations of a failed attempt by a Uighur woman to blow up a Chinese airliner flying from Urumqi to Beijing on March 7.
Exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer last month called both plots fabrications.
"The real goal of the Chinese government is to organise a terrorist attack so that it can increase its crackdown on the Uighur people," said Kadeer, 61, the head of the Uyghur American Association, now in the United States after serving a Chinese jail term.
Xinjiang's roughly 8 million Uighurs, a central Asian, Turkic-speaking people, have long bridled under nearly six decades of Chinese rule.
Nicolas Bequelin, a China researcher with Human Rights Watch, said he doubted Xinjiang authorities would completely fabricate a terror cell, but added there was pressure from Beijing for local results on terrorism with the August Olympics approaching.
"Certainly the government is keen to emphasise the terror risk in Xinjiang and paint everything with the same brush. Criminal activity is often crudely conflated with terrorism," he told AFP.
"China has muddied the waters on this so much that it is impossible to know the truth."
Real or not, the plots have led to tightening police control, Urumqi residents told AFP.
"It is very tense. There is more police activity, more people being taken away," said Jelil Aziz, a businessman who said his own brother was held by police for several days last month.
China's policy of encouraging Han Chinese migration to the region has caused an economic boom but also Uighur complaints of a creeping elimination of their culture and discrimination in business and education.
If nothing else, the alleged terror raid has highlighted these divisions.
Most ethnic Chinese questioned by AFP believed government accounts, while Uighurs were skeptical, contradicting China's claims that its many ethnic groups live in harmony.
"They captured a whole bunch of terrorists and there was a big fight," declared a Chinese man in his 50s who lives adjacent to the raid site, although he soon admitted learning of the raid only later from state media reports.
"The government said so. They would not lie," he said.
A local Uighur resident, one of many who noted the difficulty of hiding 17 terrorists in Happiness Gardens' tiny flats, took a different view.
"It's what the government says, but does that make it true?" asked the woman, whose name was withheld by AFP.
"There is no way to know for sure."
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