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China says bin Laden linked to separatists

By KATHERINE ARMS

HONG KONG, July 25 (UPI) -- Suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden sponsored Uigher separatists from the northwestern Xinjiang province, according to Chinese state media.

The official China Central Television station reported hundreds of activists had campaigned for an independent East Turkestan state in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and were trained by members of al Qaida -- alleged to be bin Laden's network of operatives -- in camps in northern Afghanistan.

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Many Uighurs, the Turkic-speaking, Muslim native people of the region, want to break away from predominantly Han China. Beijing has traditionally kept quiet about the decade-old movement, and some international observers interpret the recent display of attention as an effort to entice U.S. support for moves against Uighur separatists while the war on terrorism in in effect.

The report said from 1992 until last year about 100 terrorists were trained by bin Laden followers and then returned to Xinjiang to launch attacks on Chinese authorities. The television report said 162 people died in the attacks.

The station interviewed Awuti Mamuti, an activist who allegedly trained in Afghanistan, who said the camps and training were sponsored by bin Laden. He said more than 500 people were trained at a tightly secured facility and that bin Laden had paid for the entire venture.

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Mamuti said he spotted bin Laden once in October 1997. He said bin Laden was just a few feet away but they did not shake hands.

The broadcast included videotape allegedly shot at a clandestine meeting of separatists in the Xinjiang city of Hetan in 1996. Those present wore facemasks and spoke about methods of carrying out attacks in the province.

The broadcast said most of the activists were now living outside China and were linked with international terrorist groups.

China has generally supported the U.S. war on terrorism and since the Sept. 11 attacks has asserted links between the Xinjiang separatists and al Qaida activities. Human rights observers have decried an authoritarian crackdown in the region.

"Some individual Uighurs have made their way to Afghanistan, but that hardly justifies the broad crackdown now underway," Sidney Jones of New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement last October, while a summit of Asian leaders was under way.

Geological surveys suggest Xinjing province, once the site of China's nuclear testing facilities, contains extensive deposits of oil and natural gas. With its expanding economy based largely on rapidly modernizing its manufacturing capabilities, China's energy demands are expected to increase dramatically in coming decades.

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In addition to Uighurs, the majority of Xinjiang's Islamic population, the province is also home to Muslims with ethnic roots in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan -- all former Soviet republics that gained independence in the early 1990s after the Soviet Union's collapse.

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