Evidence suggests terrorist groups may have been involved in a series of recent attacks that killed dozens of people in China's Muslim territory of Xinjiang, the foreign ministry said.
Since the assaults began nine days ago, killing 31 people, authorities have downplayed the possible connection with terror groups that may be operating in Xinjiang, a sprawling region of deserts and mountains bordering eight Central Asian nations.
State-run media reports have described the attackers as terrorists, but most officials have said it was too early to determine whether they were connected to militant organizations.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters Wednesday in Beijing, "As to the recent terrorist attacks and whether they have any links with the terrorist forces, there is some evidence showing that behind these attacks there might be East Turkestan forces."
Militant groups that seek to split Xinjiang — one-sixth of the nation's territory — from China often use the term "East Turkestan." Uighurs and Kazaks — ethnic minorities who live in Xinjiang — declared a short-lived East Turkestan Republic during the chaos of the last years of World War II.
Some analysts skeptical
Qin did not elaborate on what evidence might link the attackers to terrorist groups. But other officials have said some of the weapons used in the attacks were similar to those found in raids last year on a training base of a group called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.
However, some analysts were skeptical about the claims that terror groups were involved.
Yitzhak Shichor, a political scientist at the University of Haifa in Israel, said China effectively crushed the terror networks within its borders in a crackdown that began in the 1990s.
The recent assaults "are not the kind of coordinated terror attacks that are being orchestrated by some kind of organization inside or outside of China," Shichor said. "It seems like individual acts of revenge."
So far, no group has claimed responsibility for the attacks.
The wave of violence began on Aug. 4 in the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar, near the border with Afghanistan and Pakistan. Two men stole a truck and rammed it into a group of police on their morning jog. The men continued attacking with homemade bombs and knives, killing 16 police.
Six days later, bombers struck in the west-central Xinjiang county of Kuqa, targeting a police station, government building, bank and shops owned by Chinese shortly after midnight. Police said they killed 10 of the attackers, while a security guard and a bystander died in the violence.
On Tuesday, attackers jumped from a vehicle and stabbed civilian guards, killing three of them at a roadside checkpoint in Yamanya town, near Kashgar. The assailants escaped.
Although the militant groups demand independence for Xinjiang, many Uighurs see that goal as unrealistic because of the mineral-rich territory's strategic and economic importance to China. They say they would just be happy with better treatment from the Chinese, whom they accuse of discrimination and policies that stifle their Turkic culture and Muslim religion.
On Wednesday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin insisted that the Uighurs are treated fairly.
"The Han and the ethnic minorities including the Uighurs are equal members of the big family in China and they are all Chinese citizens and enjoy all the rights."