Thirty-one people were killed and more than 90 injured in an early morning attack on a busy street market in the capital of the country's volatile northwestern region of Xinjiang, the local government said, the bloodiest in a series of violent incidents blamed on radical separatist Muslims.
The Xinjiang regional government said in a statement that the early morning attack in the city of Urumqi was "a serious violent terrorist incident of a particularly vile nature."
The official Xinhua News Agency said people were rushed to hospital and flames and heavy smoke were seen at the scene, which was cordoned off.
Xinhua said the assailants plowed through crowds of shoppers in off-road vehicles and threw explosives out the window before crashing head-on in the early morning attack in the city of Urumqi. It said one of the vehicles then exploded and quoted an eyewitness as saying there had been up to a dozen blasts in all.
A statement from the Xinjiang regional government said the attack occurred at 7:50 a.m.
It was not immediately clear who was responsible for the attack, but recent violence in the region has been blamed on extremists from Xinjiang's native Turkic Uighur Muslim ethnic group seeking to overthrow Chinese rule in the region.
The death toll was the highest for a violent incident in Xinjiang since days-long riots in Urumqi in 2009 between and China's majority Han left almost 200 people dead. Thursday's attack also was the bloodiest single act of violence in Xinjiang in recent history.
"I heard four or five explosions. I was very scared. I saw three or four people lying on the ground," said Fang Shaoying, the owner of a small supermarket located near the scene of the blast.
Photos from the scene posted to popular Chinese social media site Weibo showed at least three people lying in a street with a large fire in the distance giving off huge plumes of smoke. Others were sitting in the roadway in shock, with vegetables, boxes and stools strewn around them. Police in helmets and body armor were seen manning roadblocks as police cars, ambulances and fire trucks arrived on the scene.
Urumqi was the scene of a railway station bomb attack late last month that killed three people, including two attackers, and injured 79. Security in the city has been significantly tightened since the attack, which took place as Chinese leader Xi Jinping was concluding a visit to the region.
The station attack and other violence have been blamed on Uighur radicals but information about events in the area about 1,550 miles west of Beijing is tightly controlled.
Tensions between Chinese and ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang have been simmering for years, but recent attacks have targeted civilians, rather than the just police and government targets of past years.
In an unprecedented incident last year, three Uighurs rammed a vehicle into crowds in a suicide attack near the Forbidden City gate in the heart of Beijing, killing themselves and two tourists according to authorities.
And in March, 29 people were slashed and stabbed to death at a train station in the southern city of Yunnan, an attack authorities blamed on Uighur extremists.
The Associated Press