BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese police blamed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) for a train station attack in the western city of Urumqi last month that killed three people, Xinhua said on Sunday, the first time the separatists have been directly linked to the assault.
Seventy-nine people were also injured in the attack in late April. Until now China had said the attack in its troubled Xinjiang region, home to the Muslim Uighur ethnic group, was carried out by two religious extremists who were also killed in the blast.
Xinhua cited the region's publicity department as saying that ETIM member Ismail Yusup had planned the attack outside China.
"On April 22, he ordered 10 partners in Xinjiang to prepare to strike," Xinhua said.
The 10 set off explosives and slashed people with knives at the exit of the South Railway Station of Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, Xinhua said.
Two members of the group, Saderdin Sawut and Memetabudula Ete, were killed by the explosion, and the eight others were caught by police, Xinhua said.
Police are hunting Ismail Yusup in cooperation with the International Criminal Police Organization, or Interpol, Xinhua said.
The agency reported that an investigation has shown that the main members of the gang started to preach Islamic extremism in 2005. Ismail Yusup fled abroad after becoming wanted by police for making explosives and joined the ETIM in 2013.
Officials in Xinjiang could not be reached for comment.
Many Uighurs call Xinjiang East Turkestan. China's government often blames frequent outbreaks of violence there on extremists agitating for an independent state.
An Islamist militant group called the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), which China equates with the ETIM, claimed responsibility for the attack, the SITE Monitoring service, which tracks Islamist militants, has said.
The United Nations and Washington placed the ETIM on lists of terrorist organisations after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.
The ETIM has been accused by the United States and China of having ties to al Qaeda, but there is disagreement among security experts over the nature of the group and whether ties with al Qaeda and other militant organisations really exist.
Rights organisations have said there is little concrete evidence that the group has carried out most of the attacks for which it has been blamed and that Beijing uses the ETIM as an excuse to impose repressive policies on Uighurs.
Last year, China's domestic security chief said he believed a vehicle crash in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in which five people died was planned by the ETIM.
Xinjiang has been beset by violence for years and recent attacks, some of which Beijing has called terrorism, have unnerved the country. More than 100 people have been killed in unrest in Xinjiang in the past year.
The government has often blamed ETIM for some of these incidents, even though many experts and rights groups have cast doubt on its existence as a cohesive group.
Many rights groups say China has long overplayed the threat posed to justify its tough controls in energy-rich Xinjiang, which is strategically placed on the borders of Central Asia, India and Pakistan.
Many of Xinjiang's Turkic-speaking, Muslim people chafe at restrictions on their culture, language and religion, although the government insists it grants them broad freedoms.
(Additional reporting by Xiaoyi Shao; Editing by Paul Tait and Matt Driskill)