Shanghai police have detained 10 Turkish nationals for supplying fake passports to terror suspects from China’s Xinjiang region, state media has reported.
The police arrested an additional 11 Chinese nationals in November, according to the state-run Global Times newspaper. Nine allegedly purchased falsified Turkish passports for 60,000 yuan (£6,384) each and two helped facilitate the transactions. Many of the accused are ethnic Uighurs, a Muslim, Turkic-speaking minority group.
Ethnic violence in Xinjiang – a sprawling, sparsely populated region in China’s far north-west – has killed at least 400 people over the past two years. Beijing has blamed a number of attacks, which include market bombings, riots, sieges of police and government offices, on religious extremism and the influence of pernicious foreign groups. Uighur groups abroad frequently describe them as a desperate stand against religious and cultural repression.
Police apprehended the suspects at the Shanghai Pudong airport as they attempted to leave China, some of them bound for Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to the newspaper. One of the suspects had “repeatedly broadcast audio and visual materials to incite ethnic hatred and ethnic prejudice,” it said.
Michael Clarke, a Xinjiang expert at Griffith University in Australia, said that if the report is true, the arrests would mark an unprecedented case of China arresting foreign nationals in connection with Xinjiang-related violence.
“Turkey, for the Uighurs, has long been seen as a clear cultural connection, linguistically and so forth,” he said. “I suppose there’s ideological sympathy as well for the Uighurs from Turkey. But I haven’t seen evidence before that Turkish nationals were travelling to China to support Uighurs within Xinjiang.
“One big question is, how will this affect China’s relationship with Turkey itself? Over the past decade there has been a strengthening of the relationship on a number of levels: economic, diplomatic and security as well. If this emerges to be correct – that Turkish individuals are involved in terrorist activities in China– that would seem to be a fairly big issue in the bilateral relationship.”
Over the past year, authorities in south-east Asia have arrested hundreds of Uighurs travelling through the region on fake Turkish passports. In March 2014, Thai authorities detained more than 200 Uighurs at a human smuggling camp. Many of them purported to be Turkish, and some claimed to seek political asylum. In September, Indonesian police arrested four Uighurs, also on Turkish passports; police said that they planned to meet an Indonesian jihadi with ties to Isis. Details of the case remain murky. In October, Malaysian police detained 155 Uighurs crammed into two tiny apartments in Kuala Lumpur.
On Monday, Chinese police shot and killed six people in Xinjiang as they attempted to detonate explosives, state media reported. One man attempted to charge police with an axe. No police or onlookers were injured and the suspects’ identity remains unknown.
Xinjiang authorities will force residents to register using state-issued ID cards to buy fireworks for Chinese new year in February “to prevent terrorists from obtaining raw materials to make explosive devices,” state media reported on Wednesday.
Passengers board a flight at Shanghai Pudong airport. Photograph: Greg Baker/AP