BEIJING - Chinese state media blamed Syrian government and opposition forces on Monday, in unusually specific finger pointing, for training Muslim extremists responsible for the deadliest unrest in four years in China's far-western region of Xinjiang.
China has traditionally blamed violence in Xinjiang, home to the Turkic-speaking Muslim Uighur people, on Islamic separatists who want to establish an independent state of "East Turkestan".
This appears to mark the first time Beijing has blamed Syria and fits a common narrative of the government portraying Xinjiang's violence as coming from abroad, such as Pakistan, and not due to homegrown anger.
Many Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang resent what they call Chinese government restrictions on their culture, language and religion. Beijing accuses extremists of separatism.
Chinese President Xi Jinping presided over a forum in Beijing last Saturday on maintaining stability in Xinjiang. Paramilitary police have flooded the streets of the regional capital Urumqi after 35 people were killed in two attacks last week, which China has blamed on a gang engaged in "religious extremist activities".
The government hasn't identified the ethnicity of the attackers, but it said a man called Ahmatniyaz Siddiq, ostensibly a Muslim Uighur, and others "were engaged in religious extremist activities".
The Global Times, a tabloid owned by the Communist Party mouthpiece, the People's Daily, said that some members of the "East Turkestan" faction had moved from Turkey into Syria.
"This Global Times reporter has recently exclusively learned from the Chinese anti-terrorism authorities that since 2012, some members of the 'East Turkestan' faction have entered Syria from Turkey, participated in extremist, religious and terrorist organizations within the Syrian opposition forces and fought against the Syrian army," the newspaper said.
"At the same time, these elements from 'East Turkestan' have identified candidates to sneak in to Chinese territory to plan and execute terrorist attacks."
Authorities had arrested a 23-year-old "terrorist", known in Chinese as Maimaiti Aili, belonging to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the report said, adding that he had taken part in the Syrian war.
The Global Times quoted a statement from Maimaiti Aili as saying that the ETIM "specifically asked me to carry out sabotage activities in Xinjiang and enhance the 'struggle level'".
Officials in Xinjiang and China's ministry of public security were not immediately available for comment.
The report by the Global Times follows attempts by China to take a more proactive role in solving the crisis in Syria. China, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, has been keen to show it is not taking sides and has urged the Syrian government to talk to the opposition.
Police in Xinjiang have detained 19 people for spreading online rumours that triggered Wednesday's attack in northern Shanshan county, state media said on Monday.
The increased security comes four days before the fourth anniversary of the July 2009 riots in Xinjiang that pitted Uighurs against ethnic Chinese, resulting in nearly 200 people being killed.
Xinjiang sits next to south and central Asia, and China sees it as a vital bulwark in this volatile part of the world, making it all the more jumpy about unrest.
A front-page editorial in the People's Daily blamed the "three evil forces" of "terrorism, separatism and extremism" for orchestrating the attacks in Xinjiang.
"They have used religious extremism to confuse the masses of believers, and have expanded their power in waging a so-called 'holy war'," the editorial said. "Their purpose is to mess up Xinjiang, to split China."
Two days after the deadly attack, more than 100 people riding motorbikes and wielding knives attacked a police station in Xinjiang, state media reported.