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Analysis: Elite PLA units enter Lhasa

By ANDREI CHANG

HONG KONG, March 21 (UPI) -- Elite ground force units of the People's Liberation Army were involved in China's recent crackdown on Tibetan protesters in Lhasa. A substantial number of images show that the new T-90 armored personnel carrier and T-92 wheeled armored vehicles belonging to the elite ground forces appeared on the streets of Lhasa the same day the crackdown began.

China has denied the participation of the army in the crackdown, saying it was carried out by units of the armed police. Such equipment as mentioned above has never been deployed by China's armed police, however.

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To cover up the involvement of regular armed forces in the crackdown, all of the armored vehicles covered the traditional red star of the PLA Army with white cloth. The red stars painted on the steel helmets of the troops were also erased.

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Only a very small number of the PLA's group armies are armed with T-90 APCs, while the T-92s are used by its rapid reaction force units. The T-92s deployed in Lhasa are equipped with 25-mm guns. The export variant of this vehicle is called the WMZ-551A.

The variant of this armored vehicle that China has exported to Sudan is equipped with a 30-mm 2A72 artillery gun, manufactured under a technology-transfer agreement with Russia. In addition, a large number of "Dong Feng" trucks, the mainstay transport vehicles of the Chinese and Burmese armed forces, also made their appearance on the streets of Lhasa.

Judging from the military equipment that arrived so quickly in Lhasa, the 149th Rapid Reaction Division of the No. 13 Group Army under Chengdu Military Region and the No. 52 Mountain Infantry Brigade under the Xizang Military Region may have been involved in the crackdown operations. These are the crack combat units with the most outstanding rapid reaction capability in China's southwest region.

The No. 52 Mountain Infantry Brigade was the first combat unit in the Tibet region to receive T-92 wheeled armored vehicles. In operational exercises held on the Tibetan plateau around 2001, this brigade was first seen armed with the T-92.

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The fact that the trump rapid-reaction combat units of Chengdu Military Region entered Lhasa at such a fast pace deserves high attention, as does the fact that the troops entered Lhasa with such heavy equipment. This author's analysis is that the newly built Tibet railroad has given China the capability to transport troops very rapidly.

In recent years, in order to reinforce the combat capability of the PLA forces directly facing India, troops in the Chengdu, Xizang Tibet and Xinjiang Military Regions have been given priority attention. The other mountain infantry brigade under the Xizang Military Region, No. 53 Mountain Infantry Brigade, has also basically completed the process of having its equipment replaced.

The No. 13 Group Army under the Chengdu Military Region has also greatly reinforced the buildup of its army aviation units, which are now equipped with S70 and Mi17-V7 helicopters capable of flying over the Tibetan plateau.

Other combat units of the PLA specializing in plateau and mountain operations include the Lanzhou and Xinjiang Military Regions. The 61st Rapid Reaction Division of the No. 21 Group Army under the Lanzhou Military Region and the No. 6 Mechanized Infantry Division and No. 4 Motorized Infantry Division under the Xinjiang Military Region both have substantial experiences in plateau and mountain operational exercises.

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Due to the increased presence of the U.S. military in Afghanistan, the above combat units of the PLA Army are being armed with new equipment at the fastest pace. Meanwhile, they are also the mainstay forces to guard against independence activities in the predominantly Muslim Xinjiang Autonomous Region of northwest China.

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(Andrei Chang is editor in chief of Kanwa Defense Review Monthly, registered in Toronto.)

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