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World News

China plane attackers "from Pakistan, Central Asia"

BEIJING (Reuters) - Separatist militants who tried to attack a Chinese domestic flight early this month came from Pakistan and Central Asia, sources said, adding that the apparent bungled assault had international backing.

Chinese officials have said the March 7 incident -- in which a plane on its way from the restive, predominately Muslim region of Xinjiang to Beijing abruptly cut short its journey and landed in Lanzhou, a northwest city -- involved a foiled assault by passengers, but they have revealed few details.

The Communist Party chief of Xinjiang, Wang Lequan, said on Thursday that the incident was a failed attack by separatists seeking an independent Xinjiang.

“An investigation found that the attempt to cause an air disaster ... was a grave act of sabotage instigated and conducted by Eastern Turkestan separatists from abroad,” Wang told the state-run Xinhua news agency.

Now one source with direct knowledge of the official Chinese inquiry has told Reuters that the chief suspects -- a man and a woman -- boarded the flight as Pakistani nationals.

“The woman was carrying flammable liquids and evaded security checks by going through the first-class boarding area,” said the source, an expert on Xinjiang security threats who has spoken to investigators.

The source declined to be identified because of the risk of punishment for revealing sensitive information.

“They were carrying Pakistani passports,” the source said. “That does not mean they’ve concluded they were Pakistani nationals. The passports may have been fake or illegally obtained.”

But the source also said the woman had been born in Xinjiang and spent many years in Pakistan, where Islamic militants have detonated numerous suicide bombs.

PAKISTANI MASTERMIND AT LARGE

An aviation industry source who asked not to be named said the woman was a young Uighur who was trained by a Pakistan-based militant group, while the man was from Central Asia and in his 30s.

A third suspect, a Pakistani, who masterminded the bungled attack was at large, the aviation industry source said.

The suspects boarded the plane with two canned drinks, the content of which had been replaced with a flammable liquid using a syringe, the second source told Reuters.

The woman failed to light the liquid in the plane toilet, the source said. She aroused the suspicion of crew and other passengers when she came out of the toilet to pick up the second can.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry, reached by telephone, had no immediate comment.

Exiled Uighurs campaigning for an independent country have said China concocted the case to justify intense controls on Uighurs within China.

The Xinjiang official Wang said that suspects had already confessed to planning, directing and initiating the failed attack. But he did not specify what country they operated from.

Xinjiang is home to 8 million Muslim Uighurs, many of whom resent the growing presence and economic grip of Han Chinese. The oil-rich region borders Pakistan and Afghanistan.

A senior Chinese official said recently that extremist Uighurs -- a Turkic people who share linguistic and cultural bonds with central Asia -- were plotting attacks on the Beijing Olympics.

China has said its police shot dead two members of a “terrorist gang” and rounded up 15 others in a raid in January in Xinjiang.

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