BEIJING - China has called a fatal car crash near the politically sensitive Tiananmen Square a planned terror attack, the first in Beijing's recent history, pinning the blame on a Muslim ethnic minority from the restive Xinjiang region.
Beijing police on Thursday said they have arrested five suspects - all with ethnic Uighur names.
They also gave a detailed account of Monday's incident outside the Heavenly Peace Gate, the entrance to the Forbidden City.
Three people - identified as Usmen Hasan, his mother Kuwanhan Reyim and wife Gulkiz Gini - were in the sport utility vehicle (SUV) that rammed into the crowd near the gate before it burst into flames. The trio died, two tourists were killed and 40 people injured, the police said.
"The initial understanding of the police is that the Oct 28 incident is a case of a violent terrorist attack that was carefully planned, organised and plotted."
It is the first official word on the incident, which could mark the first time that long-running unrest in Xinjiang has spilt into the Chinese capital and also the first time Uighurs have carried out a suicide attack, say analysts.
Some say the crash near Tiananmen Square, the site of the June 4, 1989 pro-democracy crackdown, represents an embarrassing failure on the part of China's vast police and intelligence apparatus and shows it cannot plug all security vulnerabilities.
"This is a highly policed region. You wouldn't think that something like this would happen here. So this will make the party nervous," Mr David Tobin, a University of Glasgow expert on Chinese politics, was quoted as saying by Agence France-Presse.
In what might appear to be the authorities putting a defensive spin on the incident, the official Xinhua news agency reported one of the suspects "expressing surprise that the police managed to arrest them in merely 10 hours". Police said knives, rods, petrol and a flag with religious slogans were found in the SUV.
Some rights groups have expressed fears of a crackdown. A statement on Tuesday by the World Uighur Congress, a Washington-based exile group, says it fears Beijing's response will "lead to further demonisation of the Uighur people and incite a fierce state crackdown" in Xinjiang.
Prominent Uighur intellectual Ilham Tohti cautioned against using the incident to stigmatise Uighurs or impose tighter controls on them.
The incident has thrown more uncertainty into the Xinjiang situation, possibly pushing a peaceful resolution further out of reach, according to Beijing-based analyst Russell Leigh Moses.
"It's going to be difficult for those in the government who want a new, softer approach... to make a persuasive argument."
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