Chinese police are investigating whether a fiery car crash which killed five people and injured dozens was linked with suspects from the country’s restive Xinjiang region, with mounting evidence pointing to a deliberate suicide attack.
Police issued a notice late on Monday ordering Beijing hotels to check their records for a 42-year-old and 25-year-old from Pishan and Shanshan counties in the far western province, in connection with an unspecified "major incident".
This was not some driver who took a wrong turn and accidentally ended up on the sidewalk.
While official channels have restricted details of the case, and sensitive online posts about the incident are still being swiftly removed by censors, a state security source with knowledge of the investigation told Fairfax Media that at least two of the dead car occupants were Uighurs – a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority – from Xinjiang.
People watch from nearby Chang'an Avenue as smoke rises in front of the Tiananmen Gate on Monday. Photo: Reuters
The source said there were suspicions the incident was connected with terrorist activity, but that it was not yet confirmed.
He could not say whether the multiple licence plates suggested there was a chance of further attacks. "We don’t know if any others are involved at this stage," he said.
Another source with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters that it “looks like a premeditated suicide attack”.
Numerous witness accounts suggest the driver of the white four-wheel-drive had steered off the road and onto the footpath for more than 400 metres, honking the car horn to warn pedestrians, before crashing into a pillar and exploding into flames at what appeared to be the intended destination, almost directly under the iconic portrait of Mao Zedong which hangs over the main gate of Tiananmen Square.
"This was not some driver who took a wrong turn and accidentally ended up on the sidewalk," one witness told The New York Times.
"The car did not swerve to avoid people, but navigated around obstacles that would have stopped it reaching the Tiananmen Gate," another told The Times of London.
The crash, which occurred shortly after noon local time on Monday, killed the driver and both passengers of the vehicle, as well as two pedestrians – a Filipina woman and a man from China’s southern Guangdong province.
The notice circulated by police said the suspects possessed four different licence plates, and a "light-coloured" four-wheel-drive, matching the description of the vehicle involved.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman declined to respond to a question about whether the episode had been a terrorist attack.
China has warned of growing religious extremism among Uighurs in Xinjiang.
At least 35 people – Uighurs and Han Chinese – died in a series of bloody riots in the region in June, and ethnic tensions have bubbled in the region for years.
Police arrested 139 people between June and August this year for "spreading religious extremism including jihad" online.
Beijing has pointed to violent incidents to indicate a rising militant threat, while Uighur organisations complain of cultural and religious oppression.
At least 38 people were reported injured in Tiananmen Square on Monday, including three other Philippines nationals and one Japanese man. DFAT said no Australians were involved.
"I heard the car’s horn honking, but I noticed it too late," one injured Filipina woman named Francesca told the Southern Metropolis Daily. "My mind went completely blank, and when I gained consciousness again I was on the ground."