BEIJING — The crew of a commercial airliner foiled a plot to crash the plane late last week and Chinese police recently killed two separatists suspected of planning an attack targeting the Olympics, government officials said Sunday.
The government accounts of the apparently unrelated incidents came as China tightens security in preparation for the Aug. 8-24 Beijing Olympics, which are expected to draw 2 million visitors.
Across the country, there has been a general government crackdown against civic groups, the media, laborers, foreigners and those who might politically threaten or otherwise embarrass the government.
Both incidents occurred or originated in Xinjiang, a far western province bordering Afghanistan and Kazakhstan where there have been campaigns by ethnic Uighurs for greater autonomy from China's Han majority.
Wang Lequan, the top Communist Party official in Xinjiang, said the killing of two and arrest of 15 members of a "terrorist gang" in January, in which knives, axes, grenades and books were seized, was linked to the Games.
"The Olympic Games slated for this August is a big event, but there are always a few people who conspire to sabotage," Wang said Sunday.
Wang did not indicate why the government took six weeks to link this incident and the Olympics, or what evidence it has. Beijing said the 17 suspects collaborated with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a militant group that seeks an independent state for the Turkic-speaking Uighur minority in Xinjiang. Both the U.S. and the United Nations have labeled the group, which has been mostly quiet in recent years, as a terrorist group.
Wang, a Politburo member, vowed a first-strike policy against terrorists, saboteurs and secessionists who will be "battered resolutely." These "evil forces" often try to deceive the world under cover of ethnic and religious causes, he said.
Separately, the official New China News Agency reported Sunday that an attempt to crash a China Southern jet Friday traveling from Xinjiang to Beijing was stopped by the flight crew. Officials didn't provide details, citing an ongoing investigation, but said it involved more than one person.
"Some people were attempting to create an air disaster," said Nur Bekri, chairman of the Xinjiang regional government, speaking on the sidelines of China's parliament, which is in session through mid-March. "We can be sure that this was a case intending to create an air crash."
In another recent case, a suspect was shot and killed by a police sniper after he held 10 Australian travel agents hostage on a bus for three hours. His motives were not disclosed. The incident happened in the prime tourist destination of Xian, famous for its terra-cotta warriors.
The government has held numerous security and role-playing exercises in preparation for the Games. "I think it's completely reasonable to tighten security during the Olympics," said a former Chinese diplomat and Mideast expert who declined to be named given the sensitivity of the issue. "It shows China is fully responsible for the security of foreign athletes."
Security experts said China represents an obvious target for extremists given the high-profile nature of the Olympics and promised attendance by various heads of state, including President Bush. But Beijing also may have an interest in linking various plots to the Olympics to increase public support for a broad crackdown, the experts said.
"It's not a surprise that somehow terrorism would show its head at the Olympics, but it strikes me as awfully early," said Ed Turzanski, senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.
"The Olympics are a high-risk venture," he added. "But I also wouldn't put it past them to use the threat of terrorism to clean up problems they feel they have internally and to get people off their backs, such as human rights groups."
Police on Saturday released human rights lawyer Teng Biao, 34, after 40 hours in detention with a warning not to speak to the media about human rights or the Olympics.
Another activist, Hu Jia, who has campaigned for HIV/AIDS patients, was detained in December and is expected to face charges of "inciting subversion of state power," a vague charge China commonly levies against its critics.
In recent weeks, the government has also stepped up deportation of foreigners, silenced civic groups and advised migrant laborers to leave Beijing.
China has certain advantages against extremists, analysts said. As a police state with a system of watchful neighborhood officials and a largely homogenous population, outsiders tend to stand out. Gaining access to enough materials needed to mount a dramatic terrorist incident, such as the fertilizer used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing or the aircraft used on Sept. 11, 2001, would also be more difficult than in a relatively open society, analysts said.
Furthermore, the Chinese government has few qualms about suspending civil liberties, denying access or acting without explanation, warrants or other steps expected in a democracy.
But analysts said a growing gap between the rich and the poor and the country's enormous size also present a risk from homegrown groups, even for a nation with a massive police and military force.
"No country has perfect security," said Andrew Yang, secretary-general with the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies in Taiwan. "China is very concerned and will continue to tighten security in the coming months."