Chinese police have caught five suspects after a vehicle burst into flames on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in what police called a terrorist attack in which five people were killed.
The SUV involved in Monday’s incident was driven by Usmen Hasan, a man whose name suggested he is an ethnic Uighur, who are Muslims from the far western region of Xinjiang, police said.
His wife and mother were also with him in the car, along with devices filled with gasoline, knives and a flag with “religious extremist content” written on it, police said on their official microblog on Wednesday.
“Police have identified Monday’s incident at Tiananmen Square as a violent terrorist attack,” police said.
Five people connected with the incident had been caught in connection with help from the Xinjiang government, the police added, all of whom also have names that suggest they are Uighur.
Police have seized jihadist flags and knives from where they were staying, police added.
Two tourists were also killed in Monday’s incident and at least 38 people were injured.
China has not said officially whether the incident was an attack or an accident.
Two hotels contacted by Reuters said authorities were also searching for five vehicles in connection with the suspects. They are also searching for a red motorcycle.
Beijing police did not reply to a faxed request for comment.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs urged people not to jump to conclusions when asked if the government believed that the Tiananmen crash was an attack carried out by Xinjiang extremists.
“Relevant departments are carrying out an investigation,” said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying. “”We ought to wait for the results of the probe to come out.”
A Chinese state newspaper reported in July that the government suspected Syrian opposition forces were training extremists from Xinjiang to carry out attacks in China.
Uighur activists have long criticized the Chinese government for repressing their language and culture, and say that they have been cut off from much of the economic investment in the oil and gas industry in their resource-rich home region.
“There has been an acceleration of Uighur unrest, and most of it stems from Chinese policy,” said Michael Clarke, a professor at Griffith University in Australia who has studied the history and politics of Xinjiang. “The extension of economic modernization to Xinjiang has gone hand in hand with marginalization of the Uighurs.”
“There really needs to be a reassessment of China’s approach to Xinjiang,” he added.
Uighur activists have said they fear the government will take advantage of the incident to inflict even more repressive policies on Uighurs all over the country.
“They have not stopped to investigate and find out the real truth of what happened,” said Ilham Tohti, a Beijing-based Uighur economist and longtime critic of Chinese policy in Xinjiang. “Why is it that it has already been decided, in the media and by the public, that this is an act of terrorism by Uighurs?”