An attempt to crash a domestic flight last week was an act of organized terrorism, China's state media said Thursday, adding to signs of new volatility in the country's restless western regions ahead of the Beijing Olympics.
China responded by stepping up security at its airports, on top of stringent security plans being put in place for the Olympic Games in August. Passengers are now banned from carrying any kind of liquid aboard domestic flights, and passenger and luggage searches are being increased.
"Additional special air safety policies are being taken to ensure air transport security and provide safe air transport service for the Beijing Olympic Games,'' China's Civil Aviation Administration said in a notice posted on its Web site.
The Global Times newspaper said a 19-year-old woman from western China's Turkic Muslim Uighur minority had been seized after trying to set a fire in a bathroom aboard the China Southern Boeing 757 on March 7.
"This was a well-prepared, meticulously planned, tightly coordinated, terror attack activity,'' said the newspaper, which is published by the Communist Party's official People's Daily and is considered authoritative on security and military issues.
Police were investigating the "terrorist organization backing her,'' said the report, which quoted an unidentified official with knowledge of the probe. No damage or injuries have been reported in the incident.
China's Foreign Ministry spokesman said no details were available because the incident was still being investigated.
Chinese authorities, who waited more than a day to confirm the incident, have so far not characterized it as a terrorist act. However, the announcement Sunday came at a forum in Beijing dominated by discussion of terrorism and the Beijing Olympic Games, including the revelation of an alleged terrorist plot uncovered in January targeting the games.
Soda cans allegedly contained gas
The Global Times report said the woman, who was not named, carried gasoline through a business class security check at Diwopu International Airport in Urumqi, the capital of the sprawling Xinjiang region in China's Central Asian far west. It said the gasoline was concealed in soda cans and mixed with fragrance to disguise the smell.
The woman had been a frequent passenger and was familiar to airport staff, something she used to lull security guards into complacency, it said. An elderly security guard ignored regulations by allowing her to board with the cans, which had been drained of their original contents and refilled with a syringe.
About 40 minutes into the flight, the woman opened the cans and attempted to set a fire in a bathroom next to the fuel-filled wings, the report said. She was stopped by the flight crew and the plane made an emergency landing in the western city of Lanzhou.
Security has since been tightened at Urumqi airport and the Civil Aviation Administration said it would be publishing detailed measures explaining new restrictions soon.
Along with the ban on liquids, streamlined and VIP check-in procedures will be eliminated, checks of air cargo will be strengthened and vehicles entering controlled airport space will be required to submit to searches, the notice said.
It remained unclear whether there was a link between last week's incident and a January raid on an alleged terrorist den in Urumqi in which the Olympics plot was reportedly discovered. State media said two alleged terrorists were killed and 15 arrested in the raid.
China blames independence group
Authorities said the plotters were allied with a radical Islamic Xinjiang independence group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, and homemade bombs and guns were found alongside jihadist literature. East Turkestan is another name for Xinjiang.
Outside observers and human rights activists have questioned the delay in announcing the Olympic connection along with lack of evidence to back up China's claims. Rights groups say Beijing may simply be seeking justification for draconian security measures in Xinjiang and throughout China before the Olympics.
While the United States has labeled the East Turkestan Islamic Movement a terrorist organization, the State Department alleges widespread abuses of the legal and educational systems by the communist authorities to suppress Uighur culture and religion.
Uighurs have been sentenced to long prison terms or death on separatism charges, while use of the Uighur language is declining in schools and China's ethnic Han majority dominate the region's economy and government.
Beijing has also labeled as terrorist overseas groups such as the World Uighur Youth Congress and the East Turkestan Information Center that have never publicly advocated violence, according to a State Department report issued this week.