BEIJING (AP) — Chinese police are circulating a list of eight suspects wanted in connection with an apparent suicide car attack near Tiananmen Square in Beijing that killed five people and injured dozens, a hotel manager said Wednesday.
Seven of the eight suspects on the list had names typical of the Turkic Muslim Uighur (pronounced WEE-gur) ethnic group native to the restive northwestern region of Xinjiang, said the manager, who gave only her surname, Wu. She said the other suspect appeared to be ethnically Chinese.
Wu, who runs the guesthouse attached to the Beijing liaison office of Xinjiang's Karamay city, declined to give other details.
Employees at a dozen other Beijing hotels refused to discuss the order in a likely sign that police have banned talk of their investigation into the attack Monday in the capital's political heart, where China's communist leaders live and work.
If shown to be an attack by Uighur radicals — who have been fighting a low-intensity insurgency against Chinese rule in Xinjiang for years — it would be the first in recent history outside of Xinjiang, and among the most ambitious given the high-profile target. Police have released no public word about their investigation, or a possible motive for the crash.
The SUV veered behind a traffic barrier and plowed through pedestrians on a crowded sidewalk before catching fire in what police said was a crash into a stone structure. The car ended up near the large iconic portrait of Mao Zedong at the Tiananmen Gate entrance to the Forbidden City, which stands across a wide avenue from Tiananmen Square.
"People were running, tourists were screaming. Many police cars arrived at the scene and blocked access to the site," Ren Chao, 18, said in an interview Wednesday.
Ren, a recent high school graduation from the eastern city of Ningbo, said the incident definitely appeared deliberate and that the car crashed into people and traffic barriers, but that she did not know how exactly the vehicle exploded and caught fire.
"Tourists started screaming ... It was scary," said Ren, who said she left the area by subway just as the station was being shut down.
Chinese media reports made no mention of the investigation, although several reported on the condition of those injured, who included three Filipino citizens and one Japanese man.
A Filipino woman and Chinese man were among the five killed, along with the three people in the vehicle. Of the 38 injured, five had surgeries, 12 were in intensive care, and 21 were in ordinary wards, the Beijing News and other papers reported.
Wu said the list of eight names had been distributed on Monday evening via the hotel's check-in function that is connected to the Beijing police network.
Also on Monday, police sent a request for information about two suspects and their vehicle. It wasn't clear whether the two were among those who died in the attack or were still at-large, or whether they were included in the second list of eight names.
China has largely been successful at limiting both the volume and effectiveness of domestic terrorist attacks, while containing them mainly to Xinjiang, said Philip Potter, an expert on Xinjiang and security at the University of Michigan.
However, the Chinese government has warned that radicals were planning attacks outside of Xinjiang and Potter said economic and political sites in other parts of China are enticing targets.
Should they become capable of attacking in China's eastern population centers "they would have easy access to soft, high-profile targets as well as an information and media environment that is increasingly ripe for terrorist exploitation," Potter said.
Many Uighurs complain of strict controls on their cultural and religious activities and say the benefits of economic development in Xinjiang have gone disproportionately to migrants from China's ethnic Han majority who have flooded into the region.
Uighurs also complain of routine discrimination, including difficulty obtaining passports or even traveling outside Xinjiang. Hotels and airlines are reported to have floating unofficial bans on catering to Uighurs and many employers refuse to hire them.
Beijing-based Uighur economist Ilham Tohti urged the government to make public its findings if it indeed has evidence that Uighurs were involved in a terrorist attack.
"I wish they will promptly announce the identities of the deceased, and all relevant information. If the government has concluded this is a terrorist attack, then please tell us what is the plot behind it," said Tohti, an outspoken government critic and advocate for Uighur rights.
The overseas advocacy group World Uyghur Congress on Tuesday also urged caution and expressed concerns that Beijing could use Monday's incident to demonize Uighurs as a group.
Chinese authorities rarely provide direct evidence to back up its claims of terrorist plots and critics say ordinary crimes or cases of civil unrest are often labeled as terrorism.
However, Xinjiang borders Afghanistan and unstable Central Asian states where militant Islamic violence is a regular occurrence and Uighurs are believed to be among the militants sheltering in Pakistan's lawless northwestern region.
Monday's incident also revived memories of earlier violent episodes in and around Tiananmen Square, the focus of 1989 pro-democracy protests that were violently suppressed by the army.
In 2001, five reported members of the outlawed Falungong spiritual sect set themselves on fire in the square in a protest against government suppression, while three people from Xinjiang protesting land seizures set themselves alight in the busy Wangfujing shopping district just to the east.