Ethnic Uighur jihadists from the restive Xinjiang province are suspected of carrying out a vehicle attack in front of Beijing’s iconic Tiananmen gate on Monday, according to Chinese authorities.
A sport-utility vehicle drove into a crowd of tourists in front of the entrance to China’s imperial Forbidden City located a short distance from the current Chinese leadership compound known as Zhongnanhai.
It was the first known terrorist attack inside the tightly controlled square that was the scene of the bloody Chinese military crackdown on unarmed protesters in June 1989.
The state news agency Xinhua said police in Beijing concluded Wednesday the attack was "carefully planned, organized and premeditated."
Chinese police detained five suspects and recovered the bodies of three Uighurs from the wreck of the crash, which burst into flames.
Authorities said the people killed in the vehicle were Usmen Hasan, his mother, Kuwanhan Reyim, and his wife, Gulkiz Gini.
The vehicle hit a guardrail on the Jinshui Bridge across a moat by the Forbidden City. The three people poured gasoline on themselves and ignited it, Xinhua reported.
The attack took place a short distances from the huge portrait of communist founder Mao Zedong.
The five suspects arrested were identified as Husanjan Wuxur, Gulnar Tuhtiniyaz, Yusup Umarniyaz, Bujanat Abdukadir, and Yusup Ahmat.
Chinese sources told Japan’s Kyodo news agency the suspects were part of the East Turkestan Independence Movement, a group seeking an independent East Turkestan currently known as the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
However, China in the past has labeled non-terrorist Uighur dissidents as members of the group in an effort to discredit non-Islamist Uighurs.
According to Chinese police, jihad flags, knives, and steel sticks were taken from a residence of the five suspects.
Along with the three people in the vehicle, two bystanders were killed as a result of the attack, including a tourist from the Philippines. Forty other people were injured, including a Japanese national and two Filipinos. A dozen were seriously injured.
Chinese experts, who regularly are used by China’s government to disseminate official information, were quoted in press outlets as saying the vehicle crash was a terrorist attack.
Li Wei, a anti-terrorism expert in Beijing called the suicide car crash a "premeditated terrorist attack" that indicated Uighur separatists are moving closer to conducting strikes in major cities.
China’s newspapers played down the attack. Global Times put the story on page 15 and stated that Chinese did not seem "rattled" by the attack in the main square.
However, on Chinese websites there was speculation of a terrorist attack, fueled by official censorship of the incident.
Searches for the word Tiananmen were met with error messages indicating censors had blocked reports on the attack.
The first indicators that terrorists may have carried out the attack appeared in a notice posted online by the Beijing Public Security Bureau Security Management Corps identifying two Uighurs as suspects in "a major case." It appeared in a Uighur chat room called Baidu Tieba. The post was removed by Tuesday.
Chinese censors also blocked online searches using the words "jeep," "Uighur," and "car crash."
One Chinese blogger posted a comment that said, "repressive policy in Xinjiang and Tibet finally brought about bombs."
The attack comes as the Chinese Communist Party is set to hold a meeting of key senior officials in Beijing beginning Nov. 9.
The overseas World Uighur Congress, which seeks to promote Uighur rights, issued a statement Tuesday warning that China’s government will use the attack to initiate "further demonization of the Uighur people and incite a fierce state crackdown" on Uighurs in Xinjiang.
According to Kyodo, at least one of the arrested suspects is from Lukqun, a town that was the scene of deadly clashes with police in June.
The only official statement on the incident was made by a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman.
"We are distressed by this unfortunate incident and will express our condolences to the victims and sympathies to their families," the spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, told reporters at a press conference.