Separatists blamed for China knife attack; 33 dead

Police rounding up ethnic minority Muslim Uyghurs in Kunming, where the train station attack occurred

People pray for victims on March 2, 2014, outside the railway station where more than 10 assailants slashed scores of people with knives the night before in Kunming, in western China's Yunnan province.
Alexander F. Yuan/AP

Chinese authorities Sunday blamed separatists from the country's far west for a slashing rampage that left 29 victims dead and 143 wounded at a southern China train station, and police were rounding up members of the Uyghur ethnic minority, who they believed were involved.

Police fatally shot four of the assailants — putting the overall death toll in the incident at 33 — and captured another after the attack late Saturday in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, the official Xinhua news agency said. Authorities were still searching for at least five more of the black-clad attackers.

State broadcaster CCTV said one of the slain assailants and the one detained were women.

"All-out efforts should be made to treat the injured people, severely punish terrorists according to the law, and prevent the occurrence of similar cases," said China's top police official, Politburo member Meng Jianzhu, who arrived in Kunming early Sunday — an indication of how seriously authorities view the attack.

The attackers' identities have not been confirmed, but evidence at the scene showed that it was "a terrorist attack carried out by Xinjiang separatist forces," Xinhua said. The far western region of Xinjiang is home to a simmering rebellion against Chinese rule by some Muslim Uyghurs, and the government has responded there with heavy-handed security.

Police in Kunming on Sunday were rounding up members of the city's small community of Uyghurs, believed to number no more than several dozen, for questioning in the attack and information about the assailants.

"How do we know them?" said a Uyghur man who gave only his first name, Akpar. "We could not tell if the assailants were Uyghurs, as they were all dressed in black. We did not like the attack either."

Most attacks blamed on Uyghur separatists take place in Xinjiang, where clashes between Uyghurs and police or members of China's ethnic Han majority are frequent. But Saturday's assault happened more than more than 900 miles to the southeast in Yunnan, which has not had a history of such unrest.

Kunming residents expressed dismay at both the attack and the conditions that could have led to it.

Restaurant worker Xie Yulong said the attackers were "worse than animals." But he also expressed sympathy for Uyghurs, saying their region has seen severe security crackdowns in recent months under the government of President Xi Jinping.

"It's the pressure," Xie said. "Beijing has put too much pressure on them since Xi Jinping took over. They are under so much pressure, they do not want to live, and they did that."

Another Kunming resident, Jiang Hua, said the attack has made people afraid to go out at night.

"I think we should chase off the Uyghurs and let them be independent," Jiang said. "And local authorities should be held accountable for providing public safety."

Witnesses described assailants dressed in black storming the train station late Saturday evening and slashing people indiscriminately with large knives and machetes.

Student Qiao Yunao, a 16, said he was waiting to catch a train at the station when people started crying out and running. He said he then saw a man cut another man's neck, drawing blood.

"I was freaking out and ran to a fast-food store, and many people were running in there to take refuge," she told The Associated Press via Sina Weibo, a Chinese microblog. "I saw two attackers, both men, one with a watermelon knife and the other with a fruit knife. They were running and chopping whoever they could."

Alarms over a possible spread of separatist attacks to soft targets beyond the borders of Xinjiang were first raised in October, when a suicide car attack blamed on three Uyghurs killed five people, including the attackers, at Beijing's Tiananmen Gate.

Sean Roberts, a cultural anthropologist at George Washington University who has studied Uyghurs and China for two decades, said the Kunming violence would be a new kind of attack for Uyghurs — premeditated and well organized and outside Xinjiang — but was still rudimentary in weaponry.

"If it is true that it was carried out by Uyghurs, it's much different than anything we've seen to date," Roberts said by phone.

But he said that it is still unclear whether there is any organized Uyghur fighting group and that attacks so far do not appear linked to any "global terrorist network, because we're not seeing things like sophisticated explosives or essentially sophisticated tactics."

The violence in Kunming came at a sensitive time, with political leaders in Beijing preparing for Wednesday's opening of the annual legislature, where Xi's government will deliver its first one-year work report.

Willy Lam, a political observer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the attack's coming so close to the National People's Congress dented Xi's message of a "Chinese dream" coalescing under his rule.

"Pockets of dissatisfaction, groups of people with grievances appear to be increasing. After 1 1/2 years of more heavy-handed control (in Xinjiang), the report card does not look good," Lam said.

Xi called for "all-out efforts" to bring the culprits to justice. The Security Management Bureau, which is under the Ministry of Public Security, said in a statement that police would "crack down on the crimes in accordance with the law, without any tolerance."

The attack was the deadliest violence attributed to Uyghur-Han conflicts since riots in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi in 2009, in which Uyghurs stormed the streets of the city, targeting Han people in seemingly random violence that included the killing of women and children. A few days later, Han vigilante mobs armed with sticks and bats attacked Uyghurs in the city. Nearly 200 people died.

The Associated Press

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