BEIJING, Oct 15 (Reuters) There is still a problem with ethnic unrest in China's far western region of Xinjiang though the situation is much improved on previous years, its top government official said today.
Xinjiang's Communist Party boss Wang Lequan added that ''overseas forces'' were helping stir up the region's problems, although he did not elaborate.
''Xinjiang is a very complicated place, with especially complicated surroundings,'' Wang told reporters on the sidelines of a Communist Party Congress in Beijing.
''There are overseas forces colluding with people domestically.
Under this situation, our security organisations and police absolutely are on high alert. If anyone dares to conduct sabotage activities or tries to split the country, we will without a doubt crack down,'' Wang said.
China keeps a tight grip on oil-rich Xinjiang, which borders Central Asia and where Uighur activists have been agitating for greater autonomy and a loosening of restrictions on Muslim religious worship.
Xinjiang is home to 8 million Uighurs, a Turkic, largely Islamic people who share linguistic and cultural bonds with Central Asia.
Many resent the growing Han Chinese presence in Xinjiang, as well as government controls on religion and culture.
In January, the government said it had killed 18 people it described as terrorists in a gunbattle in the Pamirs plateau in southern Xinjiang, and captured 17 others, all described as members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. Xinjiang governor Ismail Tiliwaldi said in March that the group had links with al Qaeda.
Rights groups have said the Chinese government is using its support for the US-led ''war on terror'' to justify a crackdown on Uighurs characterised by arbitrary arrests and secret trials.
The region's government did face an uphill struggle to deal with Xinjiang's ethnic problems, admitted deputy Party boss Nuer Baikeli.
''Xinjiang is a border region with ethnic minorities. Protecting social stability and promoting economic development is a very onerous task,'' he said.
More than half of Xinjiang's population belongs to an ethnic minority, which includes not only Uighurs but also Uzbeks, Mongolians, Kazakhs and even Russians.
Reuters SKB GC1753