Questions surround Chinese claim of foiled hijacking

BEIJING — Terrorism and security experts dispute China's claim that it foiled an attack on a commercial airliner last week by an Islamic suicide squad, saying that the assertion is filled with inconsistencies.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi reiterated the claim Wednesday during his annual news conference before hundreds of journalists, though he again provided few of the details that experts say would lend credibility to the claim.

"During the flight, the crew members found that some passengers were in control of suspicious liquids," Yang said, but he offered no additional details.

"The story just doesn't hang together," said Steve Tsang, the director of the Pluscarden program for the study of global terrorism at Oxford University in England.

Tsang said China had failed to identify those arrested in the alleged plot or detail how they'd planned to use flammable liquid to bring down the China Southern Boeing 757, which was flying last Friday from Urumqi in far west China to the capital.

"If they've foiled a genuine 9/11-type attack, it's a very big deal. They should be more forthcoming about it," Tsang said.

Chinese officials parried questions about the incident Wednesday, saying it was still under investigation.

Authorities didn't report the incident until Sunday, two days after the flight.

Chinese news reports later said that a female passenger, reportedly a 19-year-old from the Uighur Muslim minority, had taken a container of fuel into a bathroom and was preparing to ignite it. They quoted Nuer Baikeli, the chairman of the Xinjiang autonomous region in China's far west, as saying that the passenger intended to take down the aircraft.

Authorities later said that four passengers had been arrested.

In a statement Tuesday, exiled Uighur dissident Rebiya Kadeer urged foreign governments "to use extreme caution" when analyzing the Chinese claims of terrorism, saying they were put forth to justify a crackdown on the Muslim minority before the Summer Olympics in Beijing, which will begin Aug. 8.

Another security expert said the purported method of attack was crude.

"It's unusual for kerosene or petrol to be used as a terrorist weapon. It's not very practical," said Stephen G. Vickers, the head of International Risks Ltd., a Hong Kong-based security consultancy.

Tsang said Chinese authorities also hadn't explained why they let Flight 6901 take off again after it landed in Lanzhou, in Gansu province, after the midair incident.

"If you had a failed terrorist attack, that aircraft would be a crime scene. That aircraft is not going to fly for a long time," Tsang said.

He said genuine terrorists would have been more likely to take down an aircraft over a major city such as Beijing, not an arid, uninhabited region of Western China.

China's Xinjiang region is home to some 8 million Uighurs, Muslims who speak a Turkic language. Radical Uighurs led a campaign of bombings and assassinations in the 1990s but Chinese security forces clamped down harshly, diminishing the violence.

Yang, the foreign minister, challenged a British reporter at a news conference over her suggestion that the purported airline terrorism might provide grounds for foreigners to worry about coming to the Olympics.

"China is, of course, one of the safest places in the world. If you don't believe it, ask your ambassador. Ask the U.S. ambassador," Yang said. "Do they feel safer in China or elsewhere?"

Later, Beijing Vice Mayor Liu Jingmin, who oversees Olympics preparations, said that multiple levels of security would avert "all kinds of possibilities" during the games.