CHINESE police shot dead two Uighurs on Sunday night, nabbed two others and are pursuing a fifth on suspicion of trying to enter Vietnam illegally, amid a growing exodus by the Muslim ethnic minority group from Xinjiang.
State media reported that the Uighurs had resisted arrest and attacked police officers with knives after they had been discovered near a highway toll gate in Pingxiang in southern Guangxi region.
Following the incident, China accused the overseas separatist group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, of inciting Uighurs to take part in militant activities overseas or to stage something violent if their stowaway plans fail.
"Many have attended underground religious classes or watched terror-related footage. Some of them have staged violence and killed the innocent during human trafficking operations," the Public Security Ministry said in a statement.
But rights groups say China's unfair policies in Xinjiang and repressive treatment by the police have deepened disgruntlement among ethnic Uighurs, driving them to leave the country.
"There is a direct relationship between China's repressive policies and the increase in those trying to escape," Munich-based World Uighur Congress spokesman Dilxat Raxit was quoted as saying by AFP yesterday.
The exodus phenomenon came to light last March when eight Uighurs went on a killing spree at a railway station in south-western Kunming city that left 29 dead.
The Chinese authorities said the attackers, four of whom were killed by police, staged the attack after their attempts to leave China through southern Yunnan and Guangdong provinces were foiled.
In May, China launched a special campaign to crack down on human smuggling syndicates in the southern border regions of Yunnan, Guangxi and Guangdong.
Details released on Sunday showed a total of 262 cases busted so far and 1,204 suspects nabbed for their role in human smuggling or for trying to cross borders illegally. In contrast, there were 100 cases and 795 arrests in 2013.
China has also stepped up cooperation with countries like Thailand and Turkey to curb the illegal outflows of Uighurs, who are reportedly denied passports to stop them from leaving the country.
Still, many managed to do so, going by media reports last year that hundreds had been detained in Thailand and Malaysia for using forged travel documents.
Last week, the authorities revealed that 10 Turkish nationals had been arrested in Shanghai in November for selling forged passports, costing nearly US$10,000 (S$13,265) each, to Uighurs.
Experts say Uighurs flock to south China where they pay about 2,000 yuan (S$430) each to trafficking rings to smuggle them into Vietnam first. Xinjiang's militarised frontiers and harsh mountain terrain make it difficult for them to leave from there for Central Asia.
Pingxiang is under the jurisdiction of Chongzuo city, a human trafficking hotbed because of the 533km-long border with Vietnam.
Shanghai Institute for International Studies counter-terrorism expert Zhao Gancheng believes the exodus has intensified because of the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
He told The Straits Times that Uighurs arrested in Thailand wanted to go to Turkey, said to be a transit point for those who want to join ISIS.
"China is right in cracking down on the exodus because of the risks that those who join the overseas extremist groups could return and launch terror attacks on home soil," said Prof Zhao.
This article was first published on Jan 20, 2015.
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