Exiled Uighur leader urges Beijing not to demonise group

BEIJING - An exiled Uighur rights leader Tuesday urged China against "demonising" the ethnic group after a deadly attack for which officials have blamed separatists from the western region of Xinjiang.

Machete-wielding assailants clad in black slashed scores of people at a railway station in the southwestern city of Kunming late Saturday, killing 29 and wounding 143.

The Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) strongly condemned the violence and its exiled president, Rebiya Kadeer, appealed to Beijing not to crack down on the minority.

"At this time of heightened tensions, it is important the Chinese government deal with the incident rationally and not set about demonising the Uighur people as state enemies," she said in a statement.

On Monday the police captured three suspects, including the group's leader identified as Abdurehim Kurban, the Chinese government said. Four of the attackers were shot dead at the scene.

In Tuesday's statement the WUC said that it "unequivocally condemns the violence" and also expressed condolences to the victims of the attack and their families.

"The WUC urges calm on all sides and calls on the Chinese government to provide assurances that Uighurs will not be subjected to indiscriminate reprisals," the group said.

Kadeer, once a wealthy businesswoman, fell out with the Chinese government and was jailed before being released in 2005 and moving to the United States, where she is based.

"The fact remains that peaceful dissent against repressive government policies targeting Uighurs is legitimate, so the Chinese government must not conflate this constructive criticism with the events of 1 March," she said.

It was "absolutely vital" that Beijing addresses "longstanding and deteriorating human rights issues facing Uighurs if tensions are to be reduced", she added.

The vast and resource-rich region of Xinjiang has for years been hit by occasional unrest which authorities blame on the mostly Muslim Uighurs.

Rights groups say the tensions are driven by cultural oppression, intrusive security measures and immigration by majority Han Chinese which have led to decades of discrimination and economic inequality. Beijing claims that its policies in the region have brought prosperity and higher living standards.

Authorities routinely attribute violent incidents in Xinjiang to "terrorists", and argue that China faces a violent separatist movement in the area motivated by religious extremism and linked to foreign terrorist groups.

China has said the WUC is closely connected to terrorist organisations, once describing it as a "downright anti-China splittist organisation".