Evidence of continuing nervousness among the Chinese authorities over the situation in the Xinjiang province was forthcoming on August 9, 2009, over a drama surrounding the flight of a plane from Kabul to Urumqi, the Xinjiang capital.
The plane involved in the drama (a Boeing 767) belonged to the Kam Air, Afghanistan's first private airline, founded on August 31, 2003, by one Zamarai M. Kamgar. Its first flight operated on November 8, 2003, between Kabul, Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif with a Boeing 727 given by Gen Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Afghan Uzbeck leader. According to some Afghan sources, Dostum is believed to have some financial interest in the Airline. It initially undertook flights between Kabul, Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif and then extended its coverage to Dubai and Almaty.
On May 26, 2009, the Kam Air reached an agreement with the Xinjiang Airport Company Limited under which it was permitted to operate a round trip between Kabul and Urumqi. This was to be in addition to the twice a week flight operated since 2003 by the Afghan Government owned Ariana Afghan Airlines. This agreement was signed before the disturbances involving violent clashes between Uighurs and Han Chinese in Urumqi in the first week of July,2009.
The inaugural flight of the Kam Air took off from Kabul to Urumqi on August 9. The passenger manifest of the flight as communicated to the Chinese authorities contained the names of about 200 persons--five of them Han Chinese and the rest of them mostly Muslims--Uighurs, Afghan Uzbecks, Huis and others. It is reported by reliable sources that when the Chinese security authorities found that the plane had a large number of Uighur and other Muslims with unverified background, they decided not to take the risk and asked the flight to go back to Kabul after it had entered the Chinese air space on the ground that they had received anonymous phone calls that there were terrorists on board with explosives.
The plane could not fly back directly to Kabul. It flew to Kandahar and landed there. It was to fly from Kandahar to Kabul. Before the Chinese ordered the flight to go back to Kabul, they ordered a security alert at the airport. Troops in armoured cars took up position at the airport. On seeing the deployment of troops in armoured cars, the local Xinhua correspondent flashed a report that a plane had been hijacked, which was disseminated by the Xinhua headquarters in Beijing. This was subsequently withdrawn and another report was disseminated that the plane was refused permission to land due to a bomb threat. No explanation was forthcoming as to what kind of a bomb threat it was.
Officials of the Kam Airlines in Kabul have been alleging that the plane was refused permission to land on the ground that its paperwork for the inaugural flight was incomplete.
This is only one instance of the continuing nervousness in Xinjiang. This nervousness is also reflected in an exercise undertaken by the Chinese security authorities under which they are making a physical verification of all residents of Urumqi. They claim that after the disturbances of the first week of July the local police realised that a large number of "migrants" (meaning Uighurs from the interior) had taken up residence in Urumqi without the knowledge of the Police and that some of them had participated in the disturbances. Apart from undertaking a physical verification of all residents, they have also tightened up controls on the movement of people--Uighurs as well as Han Chinese-- from one town or village of Xinjiang to another.
It will be interesting to see whether the Chinese allow the next flight of Kam Air to go to Urumqi or suspend the permission given to it in May to operate flights to Urumqi.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies.
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