Terrorism and Beijing Olympics

Chinese officials were keen Monday to push aside security concerns for this summer's Olympic Games after the announcement of two thwarted terror attacks.

"An efficient Olympic security command system is in place," Sun Weide, a spokesman for the Beijing's Olympic Organizing Committee told The Associated Press. "We're confident of holding a peaceful and safe Olympic Games."

News that a flight crew may have halted an attempt to down a Chinese jetliner emerged this Sunday, two full days after the flight made an emergency landing.

At the same event, a Communist Party leader said police had raided a "terrorist gang" that was plotting to disrupt the Olympics.

The incidents were unconnected, but both plots apparently took root in China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

The announcement of the flight incident did not come from the Chinese Civil Aviation Administration but during a discussion of Xinjiang issues at the national parliamentary session.

"Some people were attempting to create an air disaster," Nur Bekri, the governor of Xinjiang told the round table participants as reporters looked on.

China Southern Flight CZ6901 took off from Xinjiang's capital Urumqi Friday, en route to Beijing. The flight made an emergency landing in Lanzhou, in the neighboring Gansu Province at 12:40 p.m. The passengers and crew members were unharmed and flew to Beijing the next day.

Authorities released few details, but the Chinese Civil Aviation Administration carried a statement on its Web site saying the flight made an emergency landing after "flammable materials were discovered in the toilet."

Aviation officials spoke only on condition of anonymity to the few Chinese media outlets that reported the incident.

The Southern Metro newspaper in Guangzhou quoted a source saying that a flight attendant caught an 18- to 19-year-old woman, described as Uighur, attempting to set a gas canister on fire in the bathroom. The paper reported that at least two suspects were taken into custody.

With few details released by authorities, the Chinese blogosphere is rife with speculation and unsubstantiated rumor surrounding the incident. One blog, supposedly written by a passenger on the plane, read, "four Uighurs disguised as Pakistani businessmen...brought gasoline to the plane. They planned to ignite it upon landing in Beijing airport. They wanted to crash the plane during the NPC (National People's Congress) annual session and on the eve of the Olympics."

After the airliner incident was revealed, Wang Lequan, Xinjiang's Communist Party chief, said that members of a "terrorist gang" were plotting to attack the Olympics, which are scheduled to be held in Beijing in August. The group is said to have been collaborating with the East Turkestan Islamic movement, which the United Nations labels a terrorist organization. East Turkestan is another name for the Chinese-administered Xinjiang Province, which borders Afghanistan and Pakistan.

According to the state-controlled Chinese news agency Xinhua, when Chinese security troops raided the group in January, they seized knives, axes, grenades and books about terrorism. They also killed two militants, and arrested 15 others.

"There is a danger the East-Turkestan terrorists, I am sure, will do something to attract people's attention," said Mei Jianming, an anti-terrorism expert with Chinese People's Public Security University. "But it's hard to say how many members there are in their organization, what kind of plans they have, what specific acts they will take to undermine the Beijing Olympic Games."

It is unclear why Chinese officials chose not to reveal the incidents earlier. Beijing has five months before it hosts the Games, which will attract 10,000 athletes and hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors.

Some are querying Beijing's motive behind these announcements.

"When China has made allegations of terrorist activity, it doesn't back it up with evidence and restrictions, making it impossible for independent investigators to verify," said Mark Allison, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Amnesty International, in an interview with The Associated Press.

As host, China has legitimate and serious safety concerns, Allison said. But Beijing's claims draw suspicion because of the communist regime's record of repressive policies, and its regard for even peaceful protests as a threat to national security, Allison said.

"Without evidence, their claims are open to question," Allison said.

Already concerns about Beijing's air quality have led at least one Olympic record-holder to drop out of this year's games. Haile Gebrselassie announced Monday morning he will not run in the marathon due to pollution fears. The Ethiopian runner suffers from asthma and pollen allergies.

In an interview with Reuters, he said that "the pollution in China is a threat to my health, and it would be difficult for me to run 42 kilometers in my current condition."

Now, questions are also being raised about security at the Olympics.

Wang Lequan said Chinese authorities have a first-strike policy toward the "three evil forces" of terrorism, separatism and extremism.

Terrorism remains a relatively minute threat in China, but there is a small group of Uighurs in Xinjiang that have called for independence. Some rights groups and security experts have accused the Chinese of fabricating or exaggerating the threat from the mainly Muslim minority to justify clamping down on secessionist sentiments.

"We are prepared to strike them when the evil forces are planning their activities," Wang Lequan said at the parliamentary meeting.

"The Olympic Games slated for this August is a big event, but there are always a few people who conspire sabotages. Those terrorists, saboteurs and secessionists are to be battered resolutely, no matter what ethnic group they are from."

Associated Press contributed to this report