Chinese officials have said members of separatist militant groups based in the country’s far-western Xinjiang region were being organised to fight against the Syrian government in the on-going war, and had forged ties with Al Qaeda and other terror groups.

The Chinese government said on Monday that the links established between Xinjiang-based outfits and international terror groups “seriously undermines China’s national security”.

Officials at China’s anti-terrorism authority told the Communist Party-run Global Times newspaper that leaders of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a separatist group that has called for Xinjiang’s independence, had “organised for members to head for Syria to participate in their quest for jihad”.

Since May, the officials said, ETIM members “have been going to Syria and linking up with organizations like Al Qaeda to fight against the Syrian government”. An official told the newspaper that the “ETIM is being helped by Al Qaeda and they are collecting funds through drug and gun trafficking, kidnapping and robbery”.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei told reporters that the ETIM was “colluding with international terrorist organizations” and “seriously [undermining] China’s national security”.

The ETIM has been behind a number of recent attacks in Xinjiang. China blamed the outfit for attacks in the Muslim-majority region that left at least 40 people killed last year in the cities of Kashgar and Hotan, located near the border with Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).

Chinese officials say the ETIM has established camps in Pakistan. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Public Security released a list of six wanted ETIM members, some of whom were based in Pakistan.

Separately on Thursday, the government said it had elevated the status of a Xinjiang-based armed police force. The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), a paramilitary organisation which administers several majority Han Chinese-dominated cities in Xinjiang, had been given a “deputy corps command” status which will allow it to directly liaise with Beijing and respond faster to incidents of unrest.

“The corps can report directly to the central command in Beijing in which case the time taken to respond to emergencies will be shortened,” Major General Xu Guangyu, a military scholar, told the Global Times.

In 2009, the XPCC's paramilitary troops were deployed after riots broke out between Han Chinese and Uighurs, leaving at least 197 people killed in Urumqi. The slow response to the violence was cited by scholars as one reason behind the move to elevate the XPCC’s status.

The long chain of command resulted in a several hour-long delay in deploying paramilitary troops in 2009, even forcing President Hu Jintao to return to China during the middle of the G8 Summit in Italy so that he could sign off on deployment orders.

While the government blamed separatist groups for the riots, many Uighurs say that ethnic tensions have been triggered by local resentment at increasing Han migration and widening disparities between the groups. The government this year launched a “strike hard” campaign which it said was aimed at separatist groups that were spreading their influence through the Internet. Many local Uighurs, however, say the government has inflated the terror threat to crack down on dissent. Some Uighur journalists and bloggers critical of the government have, in the past, been jailed on separatism charges.

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