Move to boost confidence as Xi urges ethnic unity

When news of the Kunming terror attack last Saturday first broke, state media was reporting that there were 10 assailants involved.

But by Monday night when the security ministry declared the case successfully cracked, the number had been reduced to eight.

Yet, the discrepancy in numbers is no indication that there has been an attempt to conclude the case quickly before the start of the National People's Congress legislature sessions on Wednesday, say counter-terrorism experts.

Instead, they believe China is eager to boost public confidence amid swirling rumours of more attacks in south-western Kunming city and elsewhere that are already prompting heightened security in many cities and tighter control on Chinese media reporting on the country's worst terror attack.

Weighing in on the incident, President Xi Jinping on Tuesday called for ethnic unity at a panel discussion with members of the top political advisory body who were from ethnic minority groups.

"Unity and stability are blessings, while secession and turmoil are disasters," he said. "People of all ethnic groups of the country should cherish ethnic unity."

Mr Xi also urged that everything possible be done to accelerate the social and economic development of China's minority ethnic groups and the ethnic areas and to bring concrete benefits to people there, reported Xinhua state news agency.

On the discrepancy in numbers, counter-terrorism expert Zhao Gancheng said: "In these sudden incidents taking place within a short time at crowded places, it's not unusual for the initial figures to differ from the final number.

"The incident also took place at night with low visibility," added Dr Zhao of the Shanghai Institute for International Studies.

Over the weekend, after a stabbing spree at the railway station in Kunming city last Saturday night that killed 29 people and wounded more than 140, Chinese state media reported that at least 10 assailants - suspected to be Muslim Uighurs from restive Xinjiang - were involved.

But on Monday night, China's security ministry said eight were involved as it declared the successful cracking of the case with three remaining suspects arrested, adding to the four shot dead and one arrested on Saturday night.

Xinhua released the ringleader's Uighur-like name Abdurehim Kurban, without saying if he was among those killed or arrested.

Terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies pointed out that the United States also took some time to identify those involved in the 9/11 attacks.

Dr Zhao added that even if the case remains unsolved now, it would not affect the National People's Congress from opening "smoothly" today, with a focus on implementing the reforms pledged by Mr Xi.

Analysts believe there is already conclusive proof that the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (Etim), a militant group based in Central and Western Asia, was responsible, even though the only evidence so far is reportedly its flags found at the scene.

Said Dr Gunaratna: "The Etim is the only group in China with the capabilities and intention to conduct an attack of such a scale."

China has also accused the Etim of helping Uighur separatists stage a fatal attack near Beijing's Tiananmen Square last October.

Chinese media in recent days has turned against foreign countries, especially the US, for not calling it a terror attack in the initial aftermath.

But Peking University analyst Zhang Jian, an expert on China's ethnic minorities, believes the focus should be on the Chinese government's response and policies in Xinjiang.

His biggest worry is how the attack would worsen the mistrust and tensions present between Han Chinese and Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang and elsewhere.

"The attack gives the government a natural reason to harden its security policies, but that may only trigger more resistance and violence, and worsen the vicious circle we are already seeing."

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