Chinese Muslim separatists from the northwest region of Xinjiang are battling Syrian government forces alongside al-Qaida and other extremist groups, an official Chinese newspaper reported Monday.
Radicals among China's ethnic Turkic Uighur minority have been traveling to Syria since May to join the fighting on trips organized by groups opposed to Beijing's rule over Xinjiang, the Global Times reported Monday.
Citing unidentified Chinese anti-terrorism authorities, it said the groups were funding their activities through drug and gun trafficking, kidnapping and robbery, and providing training for "separatists, criminals and terrorists" who had fled Xinjiang.
"After receiving orders from al-Qaida , terrorists from China came to Syria to meet with jihadists already on the ground before forming groups on the front lines," the report quoted an unidentified official as saying.
While foreign jihadists have joined in the 19-month-long Syria conflict that has killed more than 35,000 people, the presence of fighters from China has not been previously reported.
The Foreign Ministry said it had noted the report and called for stronger international cooperation in dealing with organizations seeking to overthrow Chinese rule in Xinjiang.
Such groups "not only damage China's state security, but threaten other countries' peace and stability," spokesman Hong Lei said at a regularly scheduled news conference.
The Global Times report singled out two groups as funneling fighters to Syria; the East Turkistan Islamic Movement and the East Turkestan Education and Solidarity Association based in Turkey. East Turkistan was the name given to two short-lived independent Uighur republics in Xinjiang, a vast Central Asian region of mountains and deserts that has been flooded with ethnic Chinese settlers in recent decades.
Xinjiang is the scene of a long-simmering, low-level rebellion against Chinese rule that occasionally turns violent, only to be met with overwhelming force by the military and security services. China accuses the ETIM, believed to be based in Pakistan's tribal districts, of carrying out attacks in the region, but has provided little evidence.
Xinjiang's worst violence in years, a 2009 riot that killed nearly 200 people, mainly targeted civilians, while police stations and government offices have come under occasional attack. China maintains a massive security presence in the area and separatist groups have shown little ability to establish themselves or conduct sophisticated operations.
While the report could not immediately be verified, Chinese anti-terrorism expert Li Wei said Uighur fighters have taken part in the conflicts in Chechnya and Afghanistan, and maintain an active presence in Muslim communities from Southeast Asia to the Middle East.
"Whether they are there is a matter to verify from the facts, but the history suggests it is a possibility," said Li, director of the Anti-Terrorism Research Center at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a think tank affiliated with the Ministry of State Security, China's main intelligence agency.