Chinese police say the deadly car crash in Tiananmen Square was a terrorist attack

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. We hear about cars running into crowds and blowing up, but those stories come mostly from the Mideast and Afghanistan. The story we're about to tell you comes from China...not just anywhere in China; not just anywhere in China, Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Chinese police are saying that this car explosion on Monday was a deliberate terrorist attack. At first, officials let out few details. They even tried to scrub real-time information about the deadly incident as it appeared online, but now they're giving fresh details. The World's Matthew Bell joins me now, so Matthew, first of all, what exactly happened on Monday?

Matthew Bell: The first we heard of this, Marco, was on social media. People in Tiananmen Square were taking pictures and they were saying there's been some kind of accident. There was a car in flames. Police acted very quickly to setup barriers. They even blocked photographers from view when news reporters went down to the scene. They were detained and prevented from taping or gathering information, so it wasn't so clear what happened, but it seemed like a bad accident, dozens of people were hurt, possibly there were deaths.

Werman: So that was Monday and now, today, Chinese officials have released new fresh details. What are they saying?

Bell: Police in Beijing have come out and said that to this crash was "a rigorously planned, organized, premeditated violent terrorist attack." They're not splitting hairs there. They said that five suspects are in custody. Most of the names seem to suggest that they come from Xinjiang, the western region of China where the ethnic minority group of the Uigurs come from.

Werman: What does that mean? I mean what's going on in western China that they would, if this is the case, drive a car into Tiananmen Square and blow it up?

Bell: It's a place where there's for a long time been political tensions and violence between the Uigurs, many of them feel their rights are not represented. The place is called officially an autonomous region, but people from there will tell you that's just a joke, that their rights are not respected. If this did happen and it was carried out by a group from Xinjiang, I talked to one terrorist expert who studies extremist groups from central Asia, he said it could be unprecedented...that yes, there has been violence in Xinjiang, but to take this kind of action in a place like Tiananmen Square, this would be unprecedented.

Werman: I mean kind of interesting what I mentioned earlier that authorities tried to censor some of the original details of what happened on Monday. Do you know what they were sensitive to and what makes this case seemingly such a hot one for the Chinese government?

Bell: Again, I think just that spot in Tiananmen Square, to have any sort of indication that the Chinese police and security apparatus is not in control in that very central, important place. I mean, Marco, I was there in Tiananmen Square a year ago and the number of tourists there, it's like Disneyland in a way. If you go on a tour, you go to Beijing, you definitely go to Tiananmen Square. I mean this is the last place that the Chinese government wants pictures of mayhem, or violence or any sort of, you know, political messiness to be emerging from. They want things to be smooth there. I remember walking through an noticing that some of the security officers there had fire extinguishers sitting right next to them on the ground, ready for incidents like this.

Werman: So, Matthew, the smart people you speak with say this is unprecedented. The Chinese officials say this is deliberate terrorism. How big a deal is this?

Bell: The connection to Xinjiang is coming from the police, so we have to be careful about speculating in that way, but if it is from a group in Xinjiang, it could represent an escalation. There are extremist groups from that region that have connections to groups like al-Qaeda, to the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan. There's one group called the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, which actually operates in North Waziristan on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. I mean if that kind of global terrorism is sort of rearing its head in the Chinese capital. That is a big deal and that's something new.

Werman: All right, you'll keep updated. The World's Matthew Bell, thanks a lot.

Bell: You're welcome, Marco.