BEIJING (AP) — Chinese Muslim separatists from the northwest region of Xinjiang are battling Syrian government forces alongside al-Qaeda and other extremist groups, an official Chinese newspaper reported Monday.
Radicals among China’s ethnic Turkic Uighur minority have been traveling to Syria since May to join the fighting in trips organized by groups opposed to Beijing’s rule over Xinjiang, the Global Times reported Monday.
Citing unidentified Chinese anti-terrorism authorities, it said the groups were funding their activities through drug and gun trafficking, kidnapping and robbery, and providing training for “separatists, criminals and terrorists” who had fled Xinjiang.
“After receiving orders from al-Qaeda, terrorists from China came to Syria to meet with jihadists already on the ground before forming groups on the front lines,” the report quoted an unidentified official as saying.
While foreign jihadists have joined in the 19-month-long Syria conflict that has killed more than 35,000 people, the presence of fighters from China has not been previously reported.
The Foreign Ministry said Monday it has noted the report and called for stronger international cooperation in dealing with organizations seeking to overthrow Chinese rule in Xinjiang.
Such groups “not only damage China’s state security, but threaten other countries’ peace and stability,” spokesman Hong Lei said at a regularly scheduled news conference.
The Global Times report singled out two groups as funneling fighters to Syria; the East Turkistan Islamic Movement and the East Turkestan Education and Solidarity Association based in Turkey. East Turkistan was the name given to two short-lived independent Uighur republics in Xinjiang, a vast Central Asian region of mountains and deserts that has been flooded with ethnic Chinese settlers in recent decades.
While the report could not immediately be verified, Chinese anti-terrorism expert Li Wei said Uighur fighters have taken part in the conflicts in Chechnya and Afghanistan, and maintain an active presence in Muslim communities from Southeast Asia to the Middle East.
“Whether they are there is a matter to verify from the facts, but the history suggests it is a possibility,” said Li, director of the Anti-Terrorism Research Center at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.