URUMQI, China (Reuters) - China has thwarted attacks by suspected Uighur militants in its restive far western Xinjiang region, state media said Wednesday, as Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari visited for a trade fair where he promised to work with Beijing to fight terrorism.
Zardari was in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi nearly a month after Chinese officials blamed an attack in the city on militants trained in Pakistan.
China tightened security in Urumqi ahead of the fair, deploying armed SWAT teams, marching baton-wielding riot police through the heavily Uighur ethnic group-dominated old part of the city and stepping up checks on flights bound for the region.
Urumqi’s Communist Party boss, Zhu Hailun, said that “separatists, religious extremists and terrorists have been plotting to sabotage the expo,” the official Xinhua news agency reported.
Police arrested a man at Urumqi airport on August 7 who tried to take a knife aboard a flight, suspected of “planning to carry out an attack during the flight,” the report said.
“There have been many similar cases of attacks being blocked by police,” Zhu said. “Hopefully we have intervened in time to nip the violence in the bud.”
Xinjiang sits astride south and central Asia, and China sees it as a vital bulwark in this volatile part of the world, making it all the more jumpy about unrest.
Uighurs (pronounced “Wee-gur”) are a Turkic-speaking Islamic people who form a minority in Xinjiang and are culturally closer to ethnic groups across central Asia and Turkey than the Han Chinese who make up the vast majority of China’s population.
Many resent the Han Chinese presence in their homeland, who have migrated in large numbers to Xinjiang over the past few decades.
“There are a lot of angry people here,” said a Uighur shopkeeper who gave his name as Mehmeti. “We are being taken over by the Han who arrive here from all over China. We are now a minority in our own land.”
China insists only a tiny minority in Xinjiang support the separatists.
Pakistan and China are long-time allies, with Beijing providing everything from infrastructure investment to weapons and nuclear reactors to Islamabad.
“China and Pakistan are true friends who have faced trials and tribulations together and are strategic partners who trust each other,” Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang told Zardari in Urumqi, Xinhua news agency reported.
Yet China has its own concerns over Pakistan’s stability as it struggles to fight Islamist militant groups operating from its soil.
Zardari’s visit comes after officials in Kashgar, a city in south Xinjiang, said a stabbing attack in late July was orchestrated by members of the separatist “East Turkestan Islamic Movement” who trained in Pakistan before returning to China.
Zardari, meeting Tuesday with Xinjiang Party boss Zhang Chunxian, promised to work closely with China in the fight against terrorism, state media said.
In 2009, Zardari endorsed China’s policies in Xinjiang, after Muslim Uighurs rioted against Han Chinese residents in Urumqi, killing at least 197 people, mostly Han.
Last year, Pakistan’s interior minister said that the government had killed a Uighur separatist leader in Pakistan.
Zardari said Islamabad opposed any terrorist activities, the People’s Daily reported on its website Wednesday.
“Pakistan will have even greater cooperation with China at fighting terrorism and together we will strike against terrorist forces,” it paraphrased Zardari as telling Zhang.
“Terrorism is the joint enemy of humanity, and we thank Pakistan for its support in this regard,” Zhang was quoted as saying in reply.
Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee in Beijing; Editing by Nick Macfie