China says it has broken up a 'terrorist' cell that plotted attacks after deadly ethnic violence in the north-western region of Xinjiang last year.
Security has remained tight in Xinjiang since last year's violence
At a press conference in Beijing, Public Security Ministry spokesman Wu Heping said more than 10 members of a 'terrorist' group had been arrested. Among them, as Wu said, were the two ringleaders Abudourexiti Abulaiti and Yiming Semaier.
He said explosives, knives and other equipment had been seized along with the gang members. He claimed that the group was behind an attack on police and border guards in Kashgar in August 2008 that left 17 dead and that it was linked to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a banned organization that China says is linked to al Qaida.
"The breaking up of this large terrorist group once again proves that the East Turkestan Islamic Movement is the major terror threat facing China at present and henceforward," Wu said.
Xinjiang has roughly eight million Uighurs - a Muslim, Turkic-speaking people
Wu said the gang members were planning attacks across Xinjiang. Some of them have fled to different parts of China and overseas when their plot was foiled by the police, he added.
The arrests come just days before the anniversary of last year's ethnic violence between Turkic Muslim Uighurs and majority Han Chinese in the capital Urumqi that left around 200 people dead.
Many exiled Uighurs groups, who resent an influx of Han Chinese workers into Xinjiang and have been seeking independence, see the recent arrests as politically motivated.
"China has a political motive in choosing the period before the July 5 anniversary to publicize this. The purpose is to increase pressure on Uighurs," Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the exiled World Uighur Congress told Reuters news agency.
An elderly man sits with a cane on the roadside at the crowded bazaar in Kashgar
He said the evidence given by the Chinese was all one-sided and not credible. Energy-rich Xinjiang is strategically located on China's border to Afghanistan, Pakistan and several Central Asian states. Many Uighurs, who advocate independence, call it as East Turkestan.
Beijing often blames Uighur separatists for attacks on police or other government agencies in the region, while Uighur exiles accuse Beijing of exaggerating the threat posed by separatists to justify harsh crackdowns on their community.
Editor: Grahame Lucas