Chinese authorities investigating what could be Beijing’s first major suicide attack searched on Tuesday for two men from Muslim-dominated Xinjiang after three people suspected to be from the restive region drove an SUV into a crowd at Tiananmen Square and set it on fire.
They died along with two tourists on Monday in the square, the heart of China’s power structure and the focal point of the mass 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations brutally crushed by the military.
Police have spread a dragnet across the capital, checking hotels and vehicles, seeking two people suspected to be ethnic Uighurs, a Muslim minority from Xinjiang in China’s far west, on the borders of former Soviet Central Asia.
Two senior sources said on Tuesday the crash, which also injured 38 bystanders at perhaps the most closely guarded location in China, was suspected of being a suicide attack carried out by people from Xinjiang. It was initially believed to be an accident.
The sources did not specifically say the occupants were Uighurs, many of whom chafe at Chinese controls on their culture and religion.
“It looks like a pre-meditated suicide attack,” said a source with direct knowledge of the matter, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid repercussions for talking to the foreign media.
There have been suicide bombings before in China, and in Beijing, mostly by people with personal grievances, but none has targeted the very heart of China’s government as this appears to have.
China has blamed Uighur separatists and religious extremists for a series of attacks in Xinjiang, saying they want to establish an independent state called East Turkestan. Rights groups and exiles say China massively overstates the threat. Uighurs are also not known to have previously carried out suicide attacks.
Exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer, who is based in Washington, said in a statement that she was worried that Monday’s crash would bring a fierce crackdown on her people. Ms. Kadeer, who left China in 2005, heads an international Uighur exile organization called the World Uighur Congress, based in Germany. Her group voiced concern that Chinese censorship would stop facts from coming out.
“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,” she said.
China’s government has given no official word on whether the incident was an accident or an attack. State media have mostly kept to reporting brief statements from the police and official Xinhua news agency, giving a bare bones account of what happened, as is common for such sensitive events.
Police are still investigating and have yet to determine the identities of the three people in the sport utility vehicle but suspect they are from Xinjiang, according to the sources. The other dead were a Chinese man and a woman from the Philippines, both tourists.
The sources said that the occupants were suspected of lighting a flammable substance in the vehicle. “It was no accident. The jeep knocked down barricades and rammed into pedestrians. The three men had no plans to flee from the scene,” said a source who has ties to the leadership.