BEIJING - Chinese police have captured five suspects over a "terrorist attack" in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, they said Wednesday, the first time authorities have admitted to such a strike taking place in the capital.
Beijing police said on a verified social media account that three people in the sports utility vehicle which crashed in the symbolic heart of the Chinese state and burst into flames on Monday, all of whom died, were from the same family - one man, his wife and his mother.
The car had a licence plate identifying it as from the restive western region of Xinjiang, police said, and the names given for the trio sounded like ones used by the mostly Muslim Uighur ethnic minority.
Another five people have been arrested in connection with the case, police said.
It was a "carefully planned, organised and premeditated violent terrorist attack", the statement said, adding that the car carried petrol, knives and banners bearing extremist religious content.
The suspects crashed the vehicle, "ignited the petrol inside the car so the car caught on fire" and the three people inside "died at the scene".
Police said two tourists were killed in the incident, which took place close to a huge portrait of Mao Zedong hanging from the walls of the Forbidden City, and that another 40 people were injured.
Police had alerted hotels in the capital to look out for eight suspects from Xinjiang, most of them apparently from China's mainly Muslim Uighur ethnic minority, who are concentrated in the region.
Witnesses and reports said that in Monday's incident a vehicle drove along a stretch of pavement near the Forbidden City, a former imperial palace and popular tourist site next to Tiananmen Square, knocking over pedestrians before bursting into flames, in what appeared to be a deliberate act.
Beijing has blamed Uighur groups for what it calls "terrorist" attacks in the far west, but details of alleged incidents are hard to confirm, and exile groups accuse China of exaggerating the threat to justify religious and cultural restrictions.
The police notification seeking details of the suspects did not state their ethnic backgrounds, but seven of their names were among those commonly used by Uighurs.
It included at least one person from Lukqun, where state media said 35 people were killed in June in what Beijing called a "terrorist attack".
No Uighur group has claimed responsibility for Monday's crash, which struck at the symbolic centre of the Chinese state.
Three Philippine tourists and one Japanese were among the injured.
"All patients involved in the incident are recovering," a nurse who declined to be named told AFP at Beijing's Tongren hospital, where Philippine officials said the injured were being treated.
A statement from the World Uyghur Congress - an exile group which Beijing has condemned as separatist - made before news of the arrests emerged said suspicions that Uighurs were responsible could lead to stepped-up government repression.
"Today, I fear for the future of East Turkestan and the Uighur people more than I ever have," World Uyghur Congress president Rebiya Kadeer said in a statement issued from Washington.
East Turkestan is the name which the activist organisation uses to refer to Xinjiang, where Uighurs make up 46 per cent of the population.
The group added that it fears the response by authorities in Beijing will "lead to further demonisation of the Uighur people and incite a fierce state crackdown" in Xinjiang.
Xinjiang is a sparsely populated but strategically important area which borders several central Asian countries. It is periodically hit by violent clashes, including riots in the region's capital Urumqi in 2009 which left around 200 dead, but information is often hard to obtain.
Police have arrested at least 139 people in Xinjiang in recent months for allegedly spreading jihad, according to state-run media.
In August state-run media said that a policeman had been killed in an "anti-terrorism" operation - although overseas reports said 22 Uighurs died in the incident.