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Chinese police say Tiananmen Square crash was ‘premeditated, violent, terrorist attack’

Chinese authorities declared yesterday that the fiery vehicle crash in Tiananmen Square this week was a deliberate terrorist attack and said five men have been arrested for allegedly helping to plan it.

In a statement published by the state-run Xinhua News Agency, the Beijing police called the crash that killed five people and injured 40 a “rigorously planned, organized, premeditated, violent terrorist attack.”

Ten hours after the incident – in which an SUV drove through a crowd in the iconic square, then crashed and burst into flames – the police arrested the five suspects in a night raid, the Xinhua report said.

The suspects’ names suggest that they are Uighur ethnic minorities from China’s troubled Xinjiang region, a prospect that could heighten already violent tensions between Uighurs and the Chinese government and trigger ever stricter police controls in that part of the country.

The license plate of the crashed SUV was from Xinjiang, the Xinhua report said. Inside the vehicle, police found gasoline, a gasoline container, two long swords, an iron rod and flags inscribed with extremist religious text.

The police identified the SUV driver as Usman Hasan and the two passengers as his wife and his mother. All three died in the incident.

According to the Xinhua report, the Hasan deliberately veered off Chang’an Avenue, Beijing’s main thoroughfare, jumped the Jinshui Bridge, a famous tourist attraction in front of the Forbidden City, and crashed into a guardrail.

He, his wife and mother-in-law then deliberately ignited the gasoline container inside the vehicle and died in the flames, the police said. Two pedestrians also were killed.

The crash happened just steps from the famously imposing portrait of Mao Zedong, communist China’s founding father, which hangs from the ancient, red-painted Tiananmen Gate.

The suspects who were arrested told the police during their interrogation that they knew Hasan and “schemed to carry out the violent terrorist act” together with him, Xinhua reported. When they were taken into custody, the police found flags containing the word “jihad” and long knives, Xinhua said.

One Uighur group expressed immediate doubts about the police investigation, citing its lack of transparency.

“The Chinese government will not hesitate to concoct a version of the incident in Beijing, so as to further impose repressive measures on the Uighur people,” said World Uyghur Congress president Rebiya Kadeer in a statement from Washington on Tuesday night. “Today, I fear for the future of East Turkestan and the Uighur people more than I ever have.”

Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority, have clashed repeatedly and violently with authorities in Xinjiang in recent years. Uighur groups say they are oppressed by the official policies of China’s authoritarian government and by widespread discrimination within Chinese society. Uighur leaders call the Xinjiang region “East Turkestan” and have called for independence from China and the right to self-govern.

Ethnic rioting and bloody clashes in Xinjiang reached a peak four years ago, causing more than 200 deaths and resulting in a crackdown by local authorities. Renewed protests this summer also turned violent and are believed to have claimed more than 100 lives.

Tiananmen Square was the site of major pro-democracy protests in 1989 that triggered a deadly response by the government, and it retains an illustrious status for many Chinese, including demonstrators.

The square was built as a symbol of Mao’s power. He proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China from Tiananmen Gate in 1949, and the country’s leaders address crowds and watch parades from that spot on important national holidays.

In 2011, a protester set himself on fire in the square in an incident that was not reported by Chinese media. In 2009, three people whose car was pulled over by the police on their way to the square set themselves on fire on a busy Beijing shopping street.

In recent years, fire extinguishers have been placed throughout the square as a safety precaution.

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