BEIJING (Reuters) - Uncultured youth who have been misled by religious extremists are a main source of unrest in China's heavily Muslim region of Xinjiang, its top newspaper said on Tuesday, after the government blamed Islamists for an attack in central Beijing.
A car ploughed through bystanders on the edge of Tiananmen Square and burst into flames on Monday last week, killing three people in the car and two bystanders. The government called the incident a terrorist attack carried out by Islamist militants from the far western region of Xinjiang.
More than 40 people were hurt and the police have detained five people in connection with the attack for plotting what it said was a holy war.
A front-page commentary in the official Xinjiang Daily accused ethnic "splittists" of ignoring the great changes the ruling Communist Party has brought to the region, saying extremists were distorting Islamic teachings.
"In recent decades, you can see that most people who blindly follow religious extremist forces are elementary-school, secondary-school or uncultured young people," said the commentary, signed by a person the paper identified as an ethnic Uighur member of the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles in Xinjiang.
"We loathe this kind of ignorant behaviour, and detest these evil spirits."
Many of the Turkic-speaking Uighurs who call Xinjiang home chafe at restrictions on their culture, language and religion, though the government insists it grants them broad freedoms.
The main Uighur exile group, the World Uyghur Congress, said that arrest warrants for 78 Uighurs had been issued. Hong Kong's Ming Pao newspaper showed a picture of 78 mugshots pasted to a building wall, reportedly in Turpan, an oasis city not far from the regional capital, Urumqi, though a Xinjiang government spokeswoman denied knowledge of the arrest warrants.
Xinjiang has been the scene of numerous incidents of unrest in recent years, which Beijing blames on the separatist East Turkestan Islamic Movement, even as many experts and rights groups cast doubt on its existence as a cohesive group.
"The authorities really need to take a step back and look at the results of their policies, and whether those are effective, in obtaining what we assume they want to obtain, which is less violence and more harmony," said Corinna-Barbara Francis, China researcher for Amnesty International.
China has not taken kindly to suggestions that its policies may be more to blame for the unrest than any terror group.
Prominent Beijing-based Uighur economist Ilham Tohti, a longstanding critic of Chinese policies in Xinjiang, told Reuters on Tuesday that state security agents had physically threatened him on Saturday for speaking to foreign reporters.
"I want to kill you," Tohti said an agent told him in a calm voice, after ramming his car from behind. "I want to kill your whole family."
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said the East Turkestan Islamic Movement represented a clear threat to China.
"For many years, with the joint efforts of the Chinese and other relevant governments, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement has suffered serious blows. But recently, because of changes in the regional and international situation, its influence has returned," he told reporters.
Security has been stepped up in Beijing and Xinjiang following the incident on Tiananmen Square. Public Security Minister Guo Shengkun personally inspected measures in place on Beijing's metro by taking a short ride across the city on Monday, the ministry's website said.
The World Uyghur Congress warned China risked provoking a backlash in Xinjiang.
"The authorities have been stepping up their repression in Uighur areas ... using armed men to check them," the group's spokesman, Dilxat Raxit, said in an emailed statement.
"If the international community does not take emergency measures to stop China's provocations and repression, the Uighurs who have no hope will resist and fight back as a matter of survival."
Editing By Ben Blanchard and Nick Macfie