China Says Olympics Terrorism Plots Foiled

China has warned that terrorists pose the biggest risk to this summer's Olympic Games in Beijing. Officials say they foiled two plots, one to bring down an airliner, and another to disrupt the summer games. Some critics are skeptical of Beijing's claims, charging that they are a cover for repression of China's Muslim minorities.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

As China looks ahead to hosting the Summer Olympics, it's considering a number of challenges. In a few moments, we'll explore the dangers posed to athletes from air pollution in Beijing. We turn now to terrorism. China has warned for some time that terrorists posed the biggest risk to this summer's Olympic games there in Beijing. Over the weekend, officials claim to have foiled two plots - one to bring down an airliner, and another to disrupt the summer games. Some critics are skeptical of Beijing's claims, charging that they're a cover for repression of China's Muslim minorities. NPR's Anthony Kuhn joined us from Beijing to explain more.

ANTHONY KUHN: Well, the government has released only the sketchiest of details, Renee. Over the weekend, the governor of northwest Xinjiang Province, Nur Bekri, said that suspected terrorists tried to bring down a China Southern Airlines flight on Friday that was going from Xinjiang's capital to Beijing. The flight crew supposedly foiled this attack, and then the plane landed safely. Also over the weekend, Xinjiang's communist party boss said that in January, police had killed two members of a suspected terrorist gang, and arrested 15 others. And he said that authorities later found materials that clearly indicated that this group was trying to attack or somehow sabotage the Olympics, although the government has not yet said how.

MONTAGNE: Has China named a group as being behind these plots?

KUHN: Well, they've named a group as responsible for the attacks that were planned on the Olympics. They say it's the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. By all accounts, this is a very small group and one of several that are seeking independence for Xinjiang, or what they call East Turkestan. What China says is that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida and the Taliban have all supported this group, and they trained its members at camps in Afghanistan and then sent them back into China to stage attacks. China says that this group has also gone after US overseas interests. In 2002, two members of the group were extradited to China from the central Asian public of Kyrgyzstan and accused of trying to blow up the US embassy Kyrgese capital of Bishkek.

MONTAGNE: So these groups do really exist, and this separatist movement does really exist. Why the skepticism about China's latest claims?

KUHN: What China's critics say is that this whole thing is a smokescreen for the repression of a Muslim minority in northwest China called the Uighurs, and a repression of their legitimate demands for political autonomy in their own land. And they say that China has executed and jailed thousands of Uighurs for essentially non-violent political reasons. But I think we should also add that while there are a lot of skeptics in the West, countries like Russia and the former Soviet Republics in Central Asia and also countries in the Middle East that are worried about Islamic separatists have essentially supported China's war on terror in its own territories.

MONTAGNE: So, Anthony, what kind of security measures have been put in place for the games?

KUHN: China is trying to show us that it's going all out to make the games safe. It's taken us foreign journalists, for example, to see the army on counterterrorism operations. It's taken us to see some of the new Olympic venues and their high-tech surveillance systems. Beijing will probably blanket the city in volunteers and Neighborhood Watch committees. I think it's important to remember, though, that these groups are also going to be watching out for non-violent political protests, such as from Tibetan independence groups, human rights activists. And I think that the risk of heavy-handed treatment of these groups by the police poses a greater risk, a risk of a PR SNAFU then the actual threat of attacks on the Olympics by terrorists.

MONTAGNE: Anthony, thanks very much. NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Beijing.

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