Chinese authorities are looking for two men from Muslim-dominated Xinjiang, after five people were killed when a car crashed into pedestrians and caught fire in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
Three people killed themselves and two tourists on Monday, when a car veered off the road at the north end of the square, crossing the barriers before catching fire.
Police are seeking two people suspected to be ethnic Uighurs, a Muslim minority from Xinjiang in China’s far west, on the borders of former Soviet Central Asia.
Two senior sources said the crash, in which 38 bystanders were also injured at perhaps the most closely guarded location in China, was suspected of being a suicide attack carried out by people from Xinjiang. It was initially believed to be an accident.
The sources did not specifically say the car’s occupants were Uighurs, many of whom resent Chinese controls on their culture and religion.
“It looks like a premeditated suicide attack,” said a source with direct knowledge of the matter, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid repercussions for talking to the foreign media.
There have been suicide bombings before in China, and in Beijing, mostly by people will personal grievances, but none has targeted the heart of China’s government.
China has blamed Uighur separatists and religious extremists for a series of attacks in Xinjiang, saying they want to establish an independent state called East Turkestan.
Rights groups and exiles say China massively over-states the threat.
In 2009, nearly 200 people were killed in clashes between Uighurs and ethnic Chinese in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang.
Read more: Mystery over Tiananmen Square car crash
But the unrest has never before spilled over into the nation’s capital, despite speculation in 1997 that Uighurs were to blame for a Beijing bus bomb in which at least two died.
Uighurs are also not known to have previously carried out any suicide attacks.
The government has given no official word as to whether the incident was an accident or an attack, and state media have mostly kept to reporting brief statements from the police and the official Xinhua news agency, giving a simple account of what happened.
Police are still investigating and have yet to determine the identities of the three people in the sport utility vehicle, but suspect they are from Xinjiang, according to the sources. The other dead were a Chinese man and a Filipina woman, both tourists.
Beijing police said late on Monday they were looking for two suspects from Xinjiang in connection with a “major incident”, though it was unclear if these were the people who were in the vehicle or accomplices still at large.
Sources said that the occupants were suspected of lighting a flammable substance in the vehicle.
“It was no accident. The jeep knocked down barricades and rammed into pedestrians. The three men had no plans to flee from the scene,” said a source who has ties to the leadership.
On Monday night, hours after the fire, Beijing police issued a notice asking local hotels about suspicious guests who had checked in since 1 October and named two suspects it said were from Xinjiang. Four hotels told Reuters they had received the notice.
“To prevent the suspected persons and vehicles from committing further crimes… please notify law enforcement of any discovery of clues regarding these suspects and the vehicles,” said the notice, which was widely circulated on Chinese microblogs.
Beijing police, contacted by telephone, declined to comment. On Monday, the police said on their official microblog only that they were investigating the accident, and did not say if they thought it was an attack.
Calls to the Xinjiang government went unanswered.