SHANGHAI • Chinese President Xi Jinping called for a "great wall of iron" to safeguard the restive western region of Xinjiang after a top official said Islamist separatists pose the "most prominent" challenge to the country's stability.
Mr Xi make the comments at a meeting yesterday of Xinjiang's lawmakers on the sidelines of the annual session of the National People's Congress in Beijing, marking his first meeting with the regional delegation since taking office in 2013.
Beijing has long said it faces a determined campaign by a group known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (Etim) in Xinjiang, where hundreds of people have been killed in recent years in attacks and unrest between mostly Muslim ethnic Uighurs and the majority Han Chinese.
"(Etim) is the most prominent challenge to China's social stability, economic development and national security," Mr Cheng Guo- ping, state commissioner for counter-terrorism and security, was quoted as saying by China Daily.
The comments come about a week after a video purportedly by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group surfaced showing Uighurs training in Iraq, vowing to plant their flag in China and saying that blood will "flow in rivers".
"Just as one loves one's own eyes, one must love ethnic unity; just as one takes one's own livelihood seriously, one must take ethnic unity seriously," Mr Xi told the delegation, according to the state broadcaster.
China is worried that Uighurs have gone to Syria and Iraq to fight for militant groups, having travelled illegally via South-east Asia and Turkey.
Rights groups say the unrest in Xinjiang is more a reaction to repressive government policies, and experts have questioned whether Etim exists as a cohesive militant group.
China denies that there is any repression in Xinjiang.
Security concerns have surfaced as China pursues its One Belt, One Road initiative to open up new land and sea routes for Chinese goods, and pours billions of dollars into investment projects around Asia.