BEIJING - At least two of the three deceased occupants of a car that plowed into a crowd of pedestrians and caught fire in front of Beijing's Forbidden City on Monday are ethnic Uyghurs from China's restive far western Xinjiang region, further raising the possibility the incident was a politically motivated attack, Chinese sources said Tuesday.
The incident occurred across the street from Beijing's Tiananmen Square, site of the Chinese government's 1989 massacre of democracy protesters.
Chinese public security authorities have launched an investigation into Monday's crash and have not ruled out the possibility the incident was a deliberate act carried out by Xinjiang independence supporters.
Besides the driver and two passengers, a female tourist from the Philippines and a male tourist from China were also killed and at least 38 other people were injured.
Relations between Uyghurs and China's ethnic majority Han, who now outnumber Uyghurs in their native Xinjiang, have remained tense since 2009 riots in the regional capital Urumqi killed nearly 200 and injured 2,000.
Separatist Uyghurs, who call the Xinjiang region East Turkestan, say China's high-handed policies are fueling discrimination against Uyghurs by Han Chinese.
Hong Kong's Ming Pao Daily News reported that one of the two Uyghurs who died in the SUV is from Xinjiang's Lukqun Township where deadly clashes with police broke out in June.
The other Uyghur came from Pishan County in Hotan Prefecture, the report quoting Beijing police said.
The vehicle had a Xinjiang plate.
Police also asked hotel operators to report any suspicious guests or cars.
The report quoted two different sources as saying Uyghurs in Xinjiang were responsible for the incident.
The Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy, a Hong Kong-based human rights watchdog, quoted a source from Lukqun as saying a relative of one of those killed in the car crash was among those killed in June's deadly clashes with police in the township.
"From numerous sources we have learned that (Monday's) incident was a 'suicide blast,' caused by boiling tension from Xinjiang's escalating persecution of 'illegal religion,'" the center said in a statement, adding that hundreds of police officers were patrolling in Lukqun, Hotan and Kashgar on Tuesday.
The authorities also suspect the involvement of others besides the trio.
Reuters news agency said Beijing police named two suspects it said were from Xinjiang in a notice issued Monday.
Judging by their names, the suspects appeared to be ethnic Uyghurs, the report said, adding that the notice also listed four car license plates from Xinjiang.
There are unconfirmed reports that a flag-like object was being waved from the SUV before it plowed into a crowd of tourists and caught fire.
As there is a possibility that a protest against the Chinese authorities was intended, public security authorities are continuing their search for evidence.
The incident took place at 12:05 p.m. Monday near one of the ancient bridges in front of the Forbidden City where the vehicle burst into flames after crashing into a guardrail, according to local police.
On Tuesday morning, the police were seen checking the bags of tourists in front of Tiananmen.
At the location where the SUV crashed through the pedestrian path, the police erected a car stop, and a police vehicle was standing guard.
Among the injured is a Japanese company employee in his 30s, according to the Japanese Embassy in Beijing.
An embassy staffer who interviewed the man said the man, who lives in Shanghai, suffered injuries to his teeth and hip.
The staffer said the man is conscious but "hardly remembers anything" about the incident.
He is being treated at a Beijing hospital, but his life is not in danger.