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Published: Wednesday March 5, 2014 MYT 3:35:03 AM
Updated: Wednesday March 5, 2014 MYT 3:36:04 AM

Uighur leader fears China's 'iron fist' after knife attack

Apples, burning incenses and candle holders are seen on the floor as people pay tributes to the victims of a knife attack at Kunming railway station in Kunming, Yunnan province March 3, 2014. REUTERS/Wong Campion

Apples, burning incenses and candle holders are seen on the floor as people pay tributes to the victims of a knife attack at Kunming railway station in Kunming, Yunnan province March 3, 2014. REUTERS/Wong Campion

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Chinese authorities are likely to further crackdown on dissent in the restive Xinjiang region after a bloody train station knife attack that Beijing blames on militants, an exiled Uighur leader said on Tuesday.

China says separatists from the far western region launched the attack last Saturday, killing at least 33 people and wounding about 140. The assault by masked and identically dressed assailants took place at the railway station in Kunming, some 1,500 miles (2,550 km) southeast of the Xinjiang capital Urumqi.

Xinjiang is home to the Uighur Muslim minority, who have long complained about what they say are Chinese restrictions on their culture and religion. Relations between Uighurs and ethnic Han Chinese are increasingly tense.

Rebiya Kadeer, president of the World Uighur Congress, said she feared Beijing planned to clamp down further on the region and called on Uighurs to keep calm.

"I am very much afraid the Chinese government is doing so and the first orders of the central government is an iron fist crackdown," she told Reuters in an interview.

"(Beijing) never says 'We will investigate the root cause of the problem and we will solve it (through) peaceful dialogue'," she said.

Unrest in Xinjiang - which can involve gangs attacking police stations - has killed more than 100 people in the past year. China says it is battling separatists who want to turn Xinjiang into an independent state called East Turkestan.

China says the militants were responsible for a fatal car crash in Beijing's Tiananmen Square last October in which five people died.

"(The) response of an iron fist crackdown will increase the hatred and increase the contradictions between people in East Turkestan," said Kadeer, who spoke through an interpreter.

Beijing has not explicitly accused Uighurs of carrying out the attack. Kadeer, who testified to a Canadian parliamentary committee on Tuesday, said she did not believe Xinjiang militants were responsible.

Instead, she said the assault was more likely "the desperate action of those people who lost their hope in the government".

She added: "If the situation goes on like this, more and more atrocities like this will happen in East Turkestan."

The Congress, a Munich-based organization that includes various exiled Uighur groups, stresses it is a peaceful movement. Kadeer called on Uighurs to act lawfully and "to calm down instead of playing with fire ... any violence brings more violence so I urge my people, stay away from any acts of violence".

The Congress has in the past blamed what it says are China's restrictive policies for the unrest.

In July 2009, nearly 200 people were killed in riots pitting Uighurs against ethnic Chinese in Urumqi.

Kadeer accused Beijing of wanting to crush what she called the Uighur's legitimate demands and grievances.

China, which dismisses Kadeer as an "anti-Chinese splittist", says the Uighurs enjoy broad freedoms.

Kadeer is a former Chinese political prisoner accused of leaking state secrets in 1999. She was later allowed to leave on medical grounds and now lives in the United States.

Asked whether she had seen any change in policy toward Xinjiang since Chinese President Xi Jinping took power in March 2013, she replied: "The Chinese government's attitude has continued to be the same, just repression, strike hard."

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