BEIJING Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday called for a "great wall of iron" to safeguard the restive western region of Xinjiang after a top official said Islamist separatists pose the "most prominent" challenge to the country's stability.
Xi make the comments at a meeting of Xinjiang's lawmakers on the sidelines of the annual session of the National People's Congress in Beijing, marking his first ever visit to the regional delegation since taking office.
Beijing has long said it faces a determined campaign by a group known as the East Turkestan Independence Movement, or ETIM, in Xinjiang, where hundreds of people have been killed in recent years in attacks and unrest between mostly Muslim ethnic Uighurs and the majority Han Chinese.
"(ETIM) is the most prominent challenge to China's social stability, economic development and national security," Cheng Guoping, State Commissioner for counterterrorism and security, was quoted as saying by the China Daily newspaper.
The comments come about a week after a video purportedly by the Islamic State group surfaced showing Uighurs training in Iraq, vowing to plant their flag in China and saying that blood will "flow in rivers".
"Just as one loves one's own eyes, one must love ethnic unity; just as one takes one's own livelihood seriously, one must take ethnic unity seriously," Xi told the delegation, according to the state broadcaster.
The daily evening news showed Xi meeting delegates in traditional Uighur dress, with one individual presenting him with a photo of a Uighur family whose relative once met Mao Zedong, the founder of modern China.
"I'm too excited. In 1958 old Kuerban met Chairman Mao in Beijing and now I'm meeting Chairman Xi," he said in heavily accented Mandarin.
China is worried that Uighurs have gone to Syria and Iraq to fight for militant groups there, having travelled illegally via Southeast Asia and Turkey.
Rights groups say the unrest in Xinjiang is more a reaction to repressive government policies, and experts have questioned whether ETIM exists as a cohesive militant group. China denies there is any repression in Xinjiang.
Cheng told the China Daily that China should "closely check in on whether Afghanistan is becoming another paradise for extremist and terrorist groups. Such a major development may pose a serious challenge to the security of our northwestern border".
The Global Times, an influential state-run tabloid, said Xinjiang authorities would issue a new anti-extremism regulation this year, possibly later this month, that would "prevent the spread of extremist ideas".
It said the regulation would supplement an existing counterterrorism law that is focused on acts of terrorism, but did not give details.
"Lawmakers need to distinguish between ethnic habits and extremist practices and understand that not all extremist ideas constitute a crime," the paper cited Dong Xinguang, deputy director of the standing committee of Xinjiang's regional legislature, as saying.
(Reporting by John Ruwitch, Michael Martina and Christian Shepherd; Editing by Nick Macfie)