BEIJING — Chinese authorities announced Wednesday the arrest of five men described as Islamist jihadists who helped orchestrate an audacious attack near Tiananmen Square, the political heart of the nation, that left five people dead.
In a brief message posted on its microblog account, the Beijing Public Security Bureau said the men, all ethnic Uighurs from China’s western Xinjiang region, had enlisted a family of three to drive a vehicle across a crowded sidewalk Monday and then ignite the car at the foot of the Tiananmen Gate.
Two tourists were killed and 40 people were injured as the vehicle sped toward the entrance to the Forbidden City, just yards from the iconic portrait of Chairman Mao.
The occupants of the car — identified by police as Usmen Hasan; his wife, Gulkiz Gini; and his mother, Kuwanhan Reyim, names that are identifiably Uighur — died as it went up in flames. Police say that in addition to gasoline and a gas canister, investigators recovered from the vehicle two knives, metal clubs, and a banner bearing “religious extremist messages.” The police did not disclose the content of those messages.
“This was a violent terrorist act that was carefully planned and organized,” the statement said.
Police said the five men were arrested at an undisclosed location Monday, 10 hours after the attack, and had confessed their involvement. They said investigators had discovered long knives and a “jihadist” flag in the temporary residence where the suspects were staying. It is unclear why the authorities delayed the announcement of the arrests by more than a day.
The news was released after work hours, and the police did not immediately respond to a faxed request for comment.
Like the event itself, news of the arrests was played down in the Chinese media, and most outlets carried only a brief statement from the official Xinhua news agency, reflecting in part the government’s skittishness over an incident that exposed security lapses at one of the most heavily guarded locations in the country.
The attack is likely to prompt heightened security in Xinjiang, home to most of China’s ethnic Uighurs, who subscribe to a moderate brand of Sunni Islam.
Concentrated in oasis towns in an arid stretch of western China, Uighurs have long had an uneasy coexistence with the ruling Han Chinese majority. But tensions have increased in recent years, fueled by a surge in Han migration to the region, a widening income gap, and anger over policies that many locals say marginalize Uighur culture and traditions.
The Chinese government often portrays any resistance to its policies in Xinjiang as acts of separatism. Violent clashes between protesters and the police are invariably described as terrorism, and in recent years, Beijing has sought to blame outside agitators and Islamist extremists for fomenting bloodshed in the region.
Exile groups say that much of the violence is a response to increasingly harsh policies that restrict religious practices and favor Mandarin over the Uighur language in schools.
But until the Tiananmen attack, most of the violence had been confined to Xinjiang.
Rohan Gunaratna, an international terrorism expert at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said the attack would bolster Beijing’s contention that Uighur Islamists have allied with a terrorist group known as the East Turkestan Islamist Movement and pose a serious threat.